A report released Friday calls for sweeping changes at the University of Maine School of Law, including the addition of new faculty and administrative positions, expansion of course offerings and an overhaul of governance and operational practices.

The report, commissioned by the University of Maine System and board of trustees in February, recommends that the law school enter a three-year transition period during which the changes could take place and that it do so quickly.

James Erwin

“Maine (School of Law) has already begun to cannibalize core functions in order to balance budget priorities,” the report says. “If Maine is to have a law school, then it must be repositioned within three years, funded and led by a skilled team as soon as possible.”

University officials Friday did not have an exact figure on how much it would cost to implement the wide-ranging recommendations of the report, but James Erwin, chairman of the UMaine System Board of Trustees, estimated it would require “millions of dollars at least.”

For now, the report calls on the system to cover the costs of the recommendations while a new state funding mechanism is considered for the law school.

“We will work with the law school to find resources wherever we can that will be devoted in a prioritized way,” Erwin said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean 100 percent (of the changes will be made), but largely we want to follow the recommendations of the committee’s report to help the law school get on and stay on a sustainable path.”

The report comes at a challenging time for the law school, which is searching for a new dean after the departure of Danielle Conway and has had to turn to the University of Maine System and University of Southern Maine for $2.67 million to stabilize the budget over the last three years.

The law school’s current budget is $5.69 million, while the system’s overall budget is $572 million.

State funding, which flows to the law school through the University of Southern Maine, has remained stagnant at around $850,000 for several years, though USM President Glenn Cummings has pledged to increase those funds by 50 percent in fiscal year 2021 to bring the new allocation to nearly $1.3 million.

“I think this gives us a vision and a direction for the future of the law school,” Cummings said Friday. “It points to some things we can execute to make the law school exceptionally strong and financially stable, and allow it to continue its long record as a successful institution.”

In recent years, the need to offer financial incentives to attract students has contributed to budget woes that have led to faculty positions going unfilled and high turnover.

The problems are part of a national trend, according to the report, which said the number of applications to law schools nationwide dropped from 87,476 in 2010 to 60,387 in 2018. It said the decline is due to an overall decline in demand for higher education as well as changes within the legal industry.

Enrollment at the University of Maine School of Law, the state’s only law school, has not changed much over the last 10 years. The school enrolled 253 students last year and had an enrollment of 261 students 10 years ago in 2009.

At the same time, there are concerns about how to continue attracting students while relying less on scholarship incentives and a need to increase diversity.

The report recommends expanding course offerings, including through online learning, partnerships and hands-on opportunities, and investments in rural areas of Maine where lawyer shortages have been well-documented.

It also calls for permanently funding a program that brings students of color, immigrants and low-income undergraduates to Maine for a three-week intensive legal curriculum with the aim of increasing diversity.

In order to execute such investments, the school would need to fill open faculty positions, restore funding for at least two tenure-track positions and budget for cost-of-living and merit-based salary increases. A study on faculty salaries would be commissioned to ensure faculty are being paid appropriately.

Since 2013, faculty at the University of Maine School of Law have foregone nearly $200,000 in wages because of suspensions on cost-of-living pay increases.

There are currently 16.5 faculty positions at the school, 10.5 of which are tenured or tenure-track.

Those numbers represent 6.5 fewer tenured or tenure-track positions and 4.5 fewer full-time faculty from 2010, meaning an increasing number of courses are being taught by adjunct or visiting instructors.

In addition, 8.5 non-faculty positions have been permanently retrenched or gone unfilled since 2010, the report said.

It also calls for hiring a director of Student Success, a new position dedicated to helping students and alumni in law school courses and on the bar exam, and another new position to assist with fundraising.

According to the report, giving from most alumni is currently “modest at best,” with about 14 percent of alumni donating on an annual basis.

Erwin, chairman of the system board, said the investments in faculty and the director of Student Success position are likely to emerge as priorities as the board considers what aspects of the report to invest in first.

Though no firm timeline has been set, a small group including Chancellor Dannel Malloy will be reviewing the report and offering feedback to the board on the next steps to take this fall.

The report also suggests the UMaine System explore a new funding model in which state funding would flow directly to the law school rather than through USM.

Cummings believes that approach makes sense, especially as the university moves ahead with its One University Initiative to encourage collaboration within the system and throughout Maine.

“USM alone cannot sufficiently add the millions of dollars they’re asking for,” he said. “We have to do that through a systemwide model. This year, we’ve given them a 50 percent increase above appropriations, but even that is insufficient. I think having a broader approach to a funding mechanism makes a lot of sense.”

The success of the law school at the end of the three-year period would be measured on a set of metrics that is being developed, but could include performance points such as acceptance rate, bar passage, number of applications and faculty scholarship.

The same metrics also would be used to evaluate the new dean and law school administrators. Specific targets and a time frame would be set by a board of trustees oversight committee and interim dean, the report says.

“The important thing is the board views the law school as an important strategic asset for the system and for the state,” Erwin said. “We want to make sure there are adequate resources and we want to make sure that’s done in a way that’s transparent to the board.”

Rachel Ohm — 791-6388

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm