Column: Vermont Law School Should Trumpet Its Mission

For the Valley News
Saturday, July 28, 2018

In early 1991, I drove from Michigan to Vermont to interview for an administrative position at Vermont Law School. When I arrived at the campus in South Royalton the evening before, I was underwhelmed — to say the least.

The school was nearly indistinguishable from the small town, which itself seemed slightly frayed around the edges. My first impressions faded in the fresh morning sunlight, although the charms of South Royalton and VLS took months to be fully revealed.

I was hired and moved with my family to Sharon in November 1991, beginning a short but ardent love affair with the school and community. My affection for the place remains intact all these years later.

The recent news of the law school’s financial strain, budget cuts and sharp reductions in tenure is sad and deeply disappointing.

I comment with mild trepidation, as second-guessing is an easy sport for spectators. Having just retired from 19 years as head of a New York City school, I am aware of the complex challenges of leadership. I also know that law school enrollment is down across America and that VLS is far from alone in grappling with the fiscal consequences.

Some observers note the trend against tenured faculty. According to a July 17 Valley News article, Anita Levy, of the American Association of University Professors, said the move “is part of a much larger trend away from tenured faculty, a trend she says threatens academic expression.” In the 1970s, two-thirds of faculty members in higher education were tenured or on tenure track. Now, two-thirds are contingent.

This shift is part of a broad trend away from professional job security and part of a steady incursion of “business-minded” leaders into education. Only VLS President Tom McHenry and the board of trustees know whether the current cuts in tenure are an intentional ride on that sorry bandwagon.

But despite the inarguable challenges faced by VLS, I wonder if the current response is a failure of imagination and will lead inevitably to an institutional death spiral.

I can’t offer a point of view without being self-referential, which I do reluctantly. In 1998, I interviewed to become head of a school in similar decline. Enrollment had diminished, operating deficits mounted and the board was considering closing an entire division.

I wasn’t interested in presiding over an institutional funeral, so I declared bold ambitions — without a shred of actual confidence. I convinced the board that what seemed like necessary cuts to them would lead to hemorrhaging that would be the school’s end.

In the words of one trustee, spoken with a chuckle years later, we “bet the ranch.” And we won.

I was convinced that there was sufficient audience for the school’s distinctly progressive mission, if only it could be loudly and persistently trumpeted. We did not try to appeal to everyone.

We doubled down on a progressive mission at a time when “progressive” was decidedly out of favor. The previous administration had banned the use of the word “progressive.”

We borrowed $30 million at significant risk to build new facilities, aware that the gamble would fail if enrollment and fundraising did not rise dramatically. They did and the school thrived, nearly doubling in size and resources.

I report this not with self-satisfaction, but to make a point: No one wins by retreating.

From my short stint at the law school until today, I have believed that VLS is a unique place that can and should thrive regardless of national trends. The environmental law program is, and has been for decades, a national leader. VLS has experiential programs and a mission of public service that should be the envy of any law school in America.

Both of these facets are profoundly important now, when both the environment and social justice are under daily assault.

Combining those powerful elements of mission with the unmatched beauty of Vermont and the character of its small communities should be a compelling attraction — not to everyone, but to the large number of committed young women and men who long for justice and could fall in love with the place as I once did.

In the decades since my time at VLS, I have been regularly disappointed at the lack of knowledge about this wonderful place outside the small circles of environmental law.

Perhaps VLS has done everything possible to reach the broadest possible audience for its programs. I have to wonder.

But I do know this. Whoever might be, or might have been, attracted to VLS will be reluctant to commit to an institution in surrender.

In the Valley News article, longtime faculty member Peter Teachout expressed his disappointment with the process.

In a letter to the editor, my old friend, retired faculty member Susan Apel, wrote, “That faculty have been summarily stripped of tenure may be invisible, as will the diminishment of academic freedom caused by the non-disclosure, non-disparagement agreements that faculty had to sign. I don’t know what the explanation will be when many of those same faculty have disappeared in January. Surely teaching quality may suffer then.”

She’s right. People will flee a sinking ship.

Perhaps VLS believes a new cadre of contingent faculty will take those places and right the ship. I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. Email him at stevehutnelson@ gmail.com.