The University of Maine System may give its law school more independence from the University of Southern Maine in hopes of addressing financial challenges, growing enrollment and improving academic programming.

A plan to be considered by the board of trustees this month calls for, among other things, having the dean of the University of Maine School of Law report directly to the head of the university system and making funding decisions at the system level rather than at USM.

The proposed changes come at a key time as the law school is embarking on a search for a new dean and trying to determine how to best meet the needs of the state as Maine’s only law school.

Chancellor Dannel Malloy and USM President Glenn Cummings are behind the proposal that was shaped by a committee created to help chart the law school’s direction. Trustees will vote on the plan on Sept. 16.

“We’ve been trying to implement as quickly as possible the recommendations of the committee,” Malloy said. “This is the only law school in the state of Maine and it’s a statewide asset. It should stand separate of other efforts. No one school should be charged with overseeing it and be largely responsible for its expenditures.”

In a report released in July, the committee documented budget shortfalls, faculty positions that have gone unfilled or without pay raises, a lack of fundraising and marketing schemes, and an enrollment strategy that relies too heavily on scholarships. It also stressed a need to diversify course offerings and do outreach in rural, underserved areas of the state.

The report recommended that the law school enter a three-year transition period to address those problems and come up with more sustainable financial and operational strategies.

If the board of trustees approves the proposal, it would start enacting those recommendations by changing the financial and governance structure of the law school.

The school, which shares a campus with USM, has a current budget of $5.69 million compared to the system’s overall budget of  $572 million.

Nationally, fewer students are applying to law schools. From 2011 to 2018, the number of applications in Maine dropped from 988 to 574 – a 40 percent decrease.

Total enrollment for the current year is 250 students, which is consistent with recent years though the numbers for the first-year class are slightly higher than last year. This year’s first-year class has 95 students enrolled, compared to 82 last year, although enrollment figures are not finalized until Oct. 15.

To stay competitive, the law school has increased the amount of money it spends on grants and scholarships, but failed to bring in necessary tuition funds.

At the same time, state funding that flows to the law school through USM has remained stagnant at around $850,000 for several years. Cummings has pledged to increase those funds by 50 percent through 2021 to bring the new allocation to nearly $1.3 million.

The shift of financial control would happen in phases. The new proposal would reduce the additional funds from USM by half in fiscal year 2021 and the system would be solely responsible for allocating funds to the law school by 2022.

Board of Trustees Chairman James Erwin said having the law school funded directly by the system will allow its leaders more visibility in front of the board and the chance to advocate for what they need.

“This is not a quick fix for the law school,” Erwin said. “We’re very keen to see the law school establish itself through collaborative programming at the same time it adapts to demographic challenges and the challenges of legal education. It’s something we’re going to watch closely for a while.”

Cummings said the immediate change will hopefully grant financial stability for the law school in addition to alleviating pressure on USM over how to allocate funds between its many schools and programs.

“It was becoming increasingly painful for us to try and keep up with the budget gaps and they only seemed to be getting worse, not better at the law school,” he said.

He added that while USM has had a good working relationship with the law school, “No single university can keep up with the growing needs of the Maine law school. Period. This has to be done by a systemwide approach.”

In addition to the change in cash flow, the proposal calls for the dean of the law school to report directly to the chancellor rather than the USM president.

Dmitry Bam, interim dean at the law school, said that change will make it easier to advocate for funding before the board of trustees and execute statewide initiatives like a rural semester-in-practice.

“To have our needs filtered through one campus has never really made sense,” Bam said. “I think it’s a nice thing for reporting and budgeting to have that direct connection to the system.”

The changes won’t mean total independence for the law school, which would still collaborate with USM on things such as facilities management, financial aid and programming like “3+3,” which allows students to obtain both an undergraduate and law degree in six years.

“I think all the recommendations from the chancellor to the board will definitely help move the school in the right direction,” said Deirdre Smith, a professor of law and co-chair of the former Committee to Advise on the Future Direction of the Law School.

Other recent recommendations that did not need board approval to be acted on include a 3 percent pay raise for law school faculty and staff, the first cost-of-living increase since 2013, and directives from the chancellor to create a new director of academic success position and fill two vacant tenured faculty slots.

Malloy, a former Connecticut governor and a lawyer himself, recently served as a visiting professor at Boston College Law School before taking over as chancellor in July, and said the future success of the law school is a priority for him.

He has been in discussions with the American Bar Association about the changes and said they should not impact the school’s accreditation.

On Friday, Malloy met with law school faculty on campus to talk about the proposed changes and the search for a new dean, a position he hopes to have filled by the 2020-2021 academic year.

“Everyone was enthusiastic,” Bam said. “It’s been awhile since we had that kind of frank discussion with a chancellor here to talk about the future direction of the law school. This is a tremendous resource for the state and it should be a resource that is preserved and fostered.”

 


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