Michigan State University to take over its independent law school

Michigan State University College of Law will become part of Michigan State University by 2020.

Yes, most people likely thought it was already part of the state university in East Lansing.

But while the law school has been affiliated with the university for the past 23 years, it has been a private, independent law school since it was established as the Detroit College of Law in 1891.

The law school was originally located in downtown Detroit, having constructed a building in 1935. By 1995, that part of Detroit was a run-down area, and the neighborhood was contributing to the stand-alone school’s struggles. So, it affiliated with Michigan State, but remained a private, independent college. It relocated to the East Lansing campus two years later, and its old building was sold and torn down to make way for Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers ball park. 

The affiliation allowed for dual-degree programs, for law faculty to participate in campus activities and for the law school to be housed on the university campus. But the law school’s finances were kept separate.

For the first 15 years, that arrangement worked well, and the school’s enrollment grew from 600 to 911 by 2011. But, like most law schools, Michigan State saw a significant drop in applications, forcing it to cut enrollment to 784 and to further discount tuition. It reported a $1.74 million deficit on its 2016 tax return, which covered half of 2016 and half of 2017.

To place the school on firmer financial footing, Lawrence Ponoroff, dean of the law school, started working to get the university to fully integrate the law school into its operations.  

“This action will stabilize us," Ponoroff told the law school's Board of Trustees on October 31. "But it’s not a panacea, and we will still all need to continue to work very hard to bring the law school to the next plateau, the levels that we’d like to see it achieve.”

Ponoroff said the school’s financial reserves remain "significant," but the move was needed to avoid further compromise on the quality of students. The school’s median LSAT has dropped from 157 in 2011 to 154.

Other private law schools have merged with public institutions. The Dickinson School of Law merged with Penn State University in 2000. The University of Massachusetts acquired Southern New England School of Law, a small private school, in 2010. Also in 2010, Franklin Pierce Law Center affiliated with University of New Hampshire. Texas A&M University acquired Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in 2012 and moved it from Irving, Texas, to Ft. Worth. Most recently, The John Marshall Law School, which has been an independent school since it was founded in 1899, has announced plans to merge with University of Illinois at Chicago.

Michigan State had long sought a law school. The university started looking into the possibility in the early 1960s, but never received approval from the state legislature. It faced competition from other universities, including Western Michigan University. Then, in 1972, former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Brennan founded Cooley Law School in Lansing, minimizing the need for a law school in the capital region. Interestingly, Cooley Law School affiliated with Western Michigan University in 2014 under an arrangement similar to Michigan State University and Detroit College of Law’s agreement. Western Michigan University Cooley Law School was recently given approval to offer law classes on each of Western Michigan University’s four campuses.

For Michigan State, the move from affiliation to merger is expected to save money. Bringing the law school into the university will eliminate duplicate administrative functions, including auditors, legal counsel, insurance and employee benefits.

MSU interim President John Engler said the university is ready to begin the process, and wanted to provide assurance to faculty about the future of the school. He said the law school will specialize in emerging areas of law that are significant to the Michigan economy, such as autonomous vehicles, food and healthcare. 

“Our goal is to have a law school that can kind of be special and can pick up on land-grant traditions and really think about excellence in certain specific areas," Engler told the Lansing State Journal.

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