Vt. Law School Faces Budget Shortfall

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The Vermont Law School is hoping staff members will take voluntary buyouts to help deal with a projected budget shortfall on the South Royalton campus. 

The school, which specializes in environmental law, is experiencing a drop in the number of law degree students, which is part of a national trend.  The decline is attributed to a shrinking job market for law school graduates.

The school says the decline has not been as steep as at other law schools but during the past two years applications have dropped 13 percent. 

In the past, incoming class sizes have been roughly 200.  The current class is approximately 170. 

Annual tuition for a three year law degree is $45,207. Tuition for residency master’s degree programs is somewhat less.

Because of the decline in law degree enrollment, the school must cut its annual budget by about $3.3 million or 15 percent.

This month voluntary buyouts were offered to law school staff in order to reduce expenses. 

VLS Dean and President Marc Mihaly says cuts in the number of faculty may follow.

"It is quite possible that we will be in the early part of the year putting together proposals to see if there are faculty who want to separate earlier than they might otherwise," he says.

Mihaly says there may also be an effort to encourage faculty to work part time instead of full time.

The school current has 61 faculty members and a staff of 98.

Mihaly says the school is attempting to build enrollment in its non-law degree programs, including masters degrees and off-campus distance learning. 

Those programs have been growing in recent years but they are smaller than the 3 year law program.

Mihaly says programs are also being tailored to meet changing student demands for new areas of law study and more real world experience.  

Mihaly says like other colleges, the law school is in transition. He’s hoping that despite the near- term budget cuts, the school is entering a period of growth.

"It’s quite possible that Vermont Law School will be larger in the future than it has been in the past, but it will be different and that is good,"says Mihaly.

The small size of the school and the fact that it specializes in environmental law have raised questions about how well it can weather the evolving demands of students and changes in the job market. 

Mihaly says it is exactly because it specializes that the Vermont Law School is well-positioned to adapt.

Mihaly traveled to Washington, D.C. this week where a Vermont Law School alumni group is giving an award to Senator Patrick Leahy.

"That group is an incredibly powerful group," says Mihaly.  "There’s probably close to one hundred students of ours – graduates who work in the Environmental Protection Agency alone, and a significant part of the hires at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission office’s general counsel are VLS students."

School officials say the budget process has involved faculty, staff and students. 

Cheryl Hanna, who teaches constitutional law at the college and serves on the faculty budget committee, says the budget-making process has been very transparent.

"Everybody recognizes we’re going to have to become a more efficient and in some ways a transformed institution." Hanna says.

She says because of its small size, the Vermont Law School has been more nimble in responding the declining enrollment in law degree students and in developing new programs. 

"I think compared to most other law schools we are way ahead of the curve," Hanna says. 

Environmental law professor Patrick Parenteau, who has taught at the school for 20 years, calls the budget problems ‘serious but not fatal’. 

Parenteau feels the school is in a good position to react to the changing marketplace, although he feels it "could have acted more quickly and might have planned better for the changes."


(Cheryl Hanna is a VPR commentator)

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