Pros & Cons: The UMass Law School Plan 03:15

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The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has approved a plan to create the state's first public law school, a proposal that has generated controversy from the start.

The Southern New England School of Law in Dartmouth has promised to donate itself and its millions of dollars worth of land and buildings to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Opponents say even still, the school would be too expensive to operate.

Ahead of the vote, WBUR invited two guests to speak with us about the plan: state Education Secretary Paul Reville, who supports the idea, and state Rep. Jim Miceli, who opposes the idea.

The Case For A Public Law School

Paul Reville: To begin with, we have an extraordinary opportunity. We're one of very few, only a handful of states nationally, that doesn't have a professional law school. We've got a world-class university and this, if you will, is something that's missing from our portfolio we'd like to do in due course.

Now is a difficult time financially and yet we have an extraordinary gift that's come forward to us from the Southern New England Law School that has real value and gives us a real opportunity. Having a public law school, I think, broadly speaking, there's the same argument for a public law school as there is for having a public university.

That is, an affordable, high-quality, legal education is going to be made available to the citizens of the commonwealth when they haven't had access to that in the past, and basically making the opportunity available to people who ordinarily wouldn't have a shot at it.

What's changed in the five years since the board voted against such a plan?


Reville: Well, I think the times have changed, of course the politics have changed, in terms of the way in which this sets up. It has to be said that there's enormous resistance ... to this idea by some of the law schools who feel threatened by the availability of a highly accessible public law school and that resistance (that) was successful last time has been less successful this time.

I also think the case has grown. I mean, the interest in this area is up, the stature of the university has steadily increased over that period of time. There's now a strong commitment at various levels in the commonwealth to seeing this kind of opportunity be made available to our students.

Opponents say the UMass system or the state will have to subsidize the school with millions of dollars a year to bring it up to a standard that will allow it to gain accreditation.

Reville: We don't see that. Our analysis of the numbers — and this has been probably the most heavily vetted proposal that's come before the UMass board and the Board of Higher Education because of all the opposition attention that's been focused on it — we see these numbers as adding up well.

In fact, this law school will be able to get itself accredited and actually have a return on investment to the commonwealth by way of returning tuition as it will each year, year in and year out and build up a bit of a surplus over time.

So, I think the financial assumptions that exist in this law school are solid. It's important to keep it in proportion, as the president of the university has said, that the total budget of this law school is smaller than the budget of some of the bookstores in University of Massachusetts, so it's a relatively small program.

The Case Against A Public Law School

State Rep. James Miceli: Fiscally, it's an insane proposal.

I'd like to give you a little background first. I was sitting at an Elder Affairs meeting and they were talking about the (budget) shortfall as far as nursing homes are concerned ... They're using powdered milk, things of this nature, and I said that morning, 'Why are we cutting back here and yet we've got this bunch of cheerleaders trying to promote a law school which we can't afford?'

At another time, if the money were there, I probably wouldn't have uttered any opposition. But even in fiscal good times, with the math they're using, it is insane.

What about claims by proponents that the law school will pay for itself?

Miceli: Not only don’t I believe it, there’s substantial evidence to prove that their numbers are way out of whack.

Dean Velvel, up at the Mass. School of Law here in Andover, he runs a very affordable law school. I think the tuition is about $15,000 a year. But he’s not ABA certified and makes no pretense at striving for certification. And his argument has been, you have spend $35 to $38,000 in order to put together an ABA-certified path. And they’re gonna charge, I think it’s $23,000, so there’s a shortfall to begin with.

This school says they’re on a fast-track for ABA certification. It’s never going to happen with that tuition.

This program aired on February 2, 2010.

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Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.