VLS: No Plan for Merger; Buxton Quit UVM Board Over Possibility

Students walk across campus at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., on Sept. 27, 2013. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Students walk across campus at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., on Sept. 27, 2013. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

South Royalton — When state Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, announced she had stepped down from the University of Vermont’s board of trustees, she said her decision was intended to avoid a potential conflict of interest between her duties as a trustee and as a legislator representing Royalton and Tunbridge.

Th at potential conflict stems from ongoing discussions concerning collaboration between UVM and Vermont Law School. Buxton foresaw that among the possibilities was a merger of the two institutions, and among the scenarios could be one in which the law school would relocate from South Royalton to Burlington, Buxton said.

“It is conceivable,” Buxton said in an interview this week. “There are options that might span to the university absorbing the law school,” she added.

But Buxton made clear that she did not have any specific knowledge of a merger.

“I based my decision on the creation of an ad hoc UVM committee (Vermont Law School Work Group) that was charged with ‘exploring options for collaboration with the Vermont Law School.’ I stepped off knowing that an even more expansive relationship may not come to fruition and an actual conflict might not actually arise. It was a chance I felt I had to take (giving up my position on the board) in order to remain within my own ethical guideposts,” said Buxton, who stepped down from the UVM board on Feb. 20 after serving one year of a six-year term.

In response to Valley News inquiries Thursday about Buxton’s concerns, the presidents of the two institutions released a joint statement:

“As we announced earlier, Vermont Law School and the University of Vermont are exploring programmatic and academic opportunities between the institutions. We continue those discussions that may build on our present agreements that include joint masters degrees, joint J.D. and M.B.A. degree programs, the 3+2 proposal (B.A. and J.D.), and clinical collaborations and research projects. We are especially pleased with the rapid and substantial progress we have made in the last five months, including these new agreements. These programs make higher education more affordable and accessible to Vermonters and beyond, a continued and important goal for both our institutions.”

The statement, sent by UVM communications director Enrique Corredera, was signed by Thomas Sullivan, president of UVM, and Marc Mihaly, president and dean of Vermont Law School.

Asked for a clearer answer to the question of whether the schools are considering a merger, Corredera released the following from the two presidents: “The statement represents the full extent of what the two institutions are exploring and discussing.”

Officials at the two schools referred questions to spokesmen. Cheryl Hanna, a professor and dean of external relations at the law school referred questions to spokesman Peter Glenshaw.

Asked for more information about the joint statement, Glenshaw wrote, “At this time, there is no plan to relocate, and we intend to continue building our strategic academic partnerships with UVM.”

Mihaly did not return a message late Thursday and Hanna did not respond to a subsequent message.

Last fall, when the two schools announced they were working on a joint degree program, Thomas Gustafson, UVM’s vice president for Administration and University Relations, stated unequivocally that there was no plan in the works to unite the state’s flagship university and its only law school.

“It’s not on the table at all,” Gustafson told the Valley News in September. “We’re not talking about a merger.”

The Great Recession and the slow recovery that followed hit the legal profession hard, and as law firms shed jobs, law schools saw many fewer applicants. In response to declining enrollment and revenue, Vermont Law School cut 12 staff positions and eight professors voluntarily went to part-time.

The law school also has created degree programs with other schools, including the University of Vermont and Green Mountain College in Poultney, that take advantage of the school’s status as the nation’s top school for environmental law, a distinction it retained this year. VLS also is making it possible to earn a law degree in two years, no small thing when annual tuition is $45,000.

Still, the school’s financial woes and conversations with UVM have stirred up concerns in South Royalton and the surrounding area, where the law school’s students, staff and faculty have become essential to the local economy.

“Decisions about where the law school is located, how that impacts the South Royalton community, how contracts that are in line with Vermont Law School are forwarded, all these matters are of great interest to people in my community,” said Buxton, who graduated from UVM in 2000 and the law school in 2010.

“The law school is a very important part of the town of Royalton,” Selectboard Chairman Larry Trottier said Thursday. It has had an amicable relationship with the town — the school and the town settled a tax appeal to mutual satisfaction last year — and town officials and residents recognize the school’s influence on the town.

Trottier said he and Joan Goldstein, another Selectboard member, met with Mihaly three or four weeks ago about the school’s plans. “He did say that they are working with the University of Vermont,” and that moving the law school north “was a possibility.”

In a conversation this week, “he was saying he thought somewhere along he’d know more about it in May,” Trottier said of Mihaly.

The Vermont Law School Work Group, which has been discussing cooperation with the law school, is led by trustee Chairwoman Deborah H. McAneny, a Boston area investment adviser.

Its other members, according to the university’s website, include state Rep. William Botzow, D-Bennington, Robert P. Brennan Jr., a real estate financier who lives in Chappaqua, N.Y., Montpelier management and political consultant Carolyn K. Dwyer and Dale Rocheleau, a Hanover native who went to law school at Georgetown University.

The union of a public university and a private law school isn’t without precedent. The private Franklin Pierce Law Center and the University of New Hampshire signed an affiliation agreement in 2010 and as of Jan. 1 the law center became UNH School of Law. It remains in Concord, the state’s legal hub, a little less than an hour’s drive from the UNH campus in Durham.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.