WHEN THE University of Massachusetts agreed in 2010 to acquire the Southern New England School of Law, there were skeptics aplenty. The decision to take over the small private institution and transform it into a state-run facility, rechristened the UMass School of Law, was disparaged by critics who said the merger was unnecessary, unrealistic, and unwise.
Two University of Massachusetts trustees, Richard Lawton and Kenneth MacAfee, warned at the time that the law school proposal "stinks of political motives," and claimed it would "prove to be an embarrassment to our UMass brand." The Pioneer Institute analyzed the plan — which was premised on the assertion that a weak private law school could be made bigger, better, and more competitive without costing taxpayers a dime — and rated it "virtually impossible."
State Senator Stanley Rosenberg (now the Senate president) was openly dubious about assurances that Massachusetts could assume the operation of a law school without siphoning funds from existing campuses. The state's "higher-ed system continuously makes commitments for which there are inadequate resources," said Rosenberg. "We have to stop doing this."
Editorial pages across the political spectrum tossed cold water on the idea. "This is a baleful time to entertain the creation of a public law school," argued the Boston Globe, mistrusting the rosy assumptions on which UMass was relying. The Springfield Republican bluntly labeled it "one of the worst ideas to come down the pike in years."
Now, five years later, the University of Massachusetts School of Law has a record it can be judged by. And as recent reporting on the school's performance by the Globe's Laura Krantz makes clear, the skeptics were right all along.
Proponents of the merger offered pie in the sky. They claimed they could transmute a collapsing fourth-tier law school into an impressive state institution that would toughen its admissions standards while doubling its enrollment. Though it would charge lower tuition and fees than any law school in the area, it would make so much money that within three years it would be remitting more than $1 million annually to the state — and still be left with a surplus that would total $4.4 million by 2015.
Not even Penn and Teller could have pulled off such a conjuring trick. And UMass administrators are no Penn and Teller.
Enrollment, which was supposed to surge to 559 students, has been shrinking: There are just 72 students in the incoming class, and total enrollment is only 213. Tuition at UMass Law is indeed among the lowest anywhere, about $24,000 for in-state students. The price tag is lowered even further, to $19,000, for applicants who score above the 50th percentile on their LSATs.
Not even magicians Penn and Teller could have turned a failing bottom-tier private law school into a successful, competitive, inexpensive profitable public one.
Perhaps the law school's business plan, to echo the old punchline, was to make up in volume what it loses on each student admitted. Its losses are certainly impressive. According to figures supplied by UMass, the law school ran a deficit of more than $3.8 million last year, and expects to lose another $3.9 million this year.
But what about that burgeoning multimillion-dollar surplus UMass Law was going to be socking away by now? What about the $1 million-plus it was going to be remitting to the state? What about the endlessly repeated pledge that taxpayers weren't going to lose a dime on the deal? What about the Brooklyn Bridge you bought? Sorry, chumps. You were duped.
"The original fiscal projection is clearly not sustainable and is being updated annually," outgoing UMass president Robert Caret admitted in a letter to the American Bar Association last year. Yet no amount of "updating" can fix what's wrong with UMass Law School. It was a bad idea from the outset, and it won't improve with age. Beacon Hill should have heeded the skeptics five years ago. It's not too late to do so now.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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