Vermont, Minnesota show that law schools are still grappling with budget challenges

By Jack Crittenden

With law school applications up 8.9 percent from the prior year, most law schools are celebrating and planning whether to increase enrollment or improve their incoming classes’ LSAT and GPA scores.

But not every law school is out of the weeds financially. Vermont Law School is planning major staffing cutbacks, and the University of Minnesota Law School was forced to get a cash infusion from its parent university.

These two public examples demonstrate that, while things are improving, many schools are still grappling with budget shortfalls that started five years ago when enrollment began dropping. That has left many with little wiggle room.

Vermont Law School, under the direction of President and Dean Thomas McHenry, plans to remove tenure from 12 faculty members to level its budget. Many of the faculty will remain on staff as contract employees, the Vermont Digger, an online news source, reported. But they will not have the job protection that tenure provides. 

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It has also encouraged early retirement for some and not renewed contracts for other non-tenured faculty. The school employed 50 full-time faculty members last year. Twenty had tenure positions.

McHenry took over as dean in July 2017, having been a partner at Gibson Dunn in Los Angeles, where he focused on environmental law. He said the restructuring is necessary to achieve a sustainable financial model.

The school reported a deficit of $1.4 million in 2015, after reducing expenses by more than $4 million. Its deficit was $1.1 million in 2016, based on $31.5 million in revenue. Salaries and wages made up 36 percent of total expenses that year, a similar percent to what it spent in 2011, before enrollment dropped.

The school expects 180 incoming students for this fall, up from 161 last year, and 139 the year before that. Applications from Vermont residents are up 12 percent.

The University of Minnesota is also facing a budget shortfall. The law school has projected a $4.1 million deficit in 2018-2019, according to the school and the University's Office of Budget and Finance. 

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The university Board of Regents voted in early June to supplement the school with $1.7 million to help make up for that shortfall. The university has provided an estimated $17 million in recent years, and one Regent estimated the law school could need as much as $100 million by 2023, if changes are not made.

The law school wants to avoid budget cuts that would harm its ranking in U.S. News & World Report, where it is ranked 20th.

“Obviously, everyone wants to see a time when we can get back to the budgets we had before the recession, but … I’d much rather have a school that decides to keep its standards,” law student Robert Dube told the Minnesota Daily.

The Regents voted for the supplemental funding for this year, but expressed doubt that it would do so next year.

Applications from Minnesota residents are up 13 percent this year.

 

 

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