VLS to End Tenure For Much of Faculty

  • Thomas McHenry, Vermont Law School's new dean and president, discusses his position and the state’s sole law school during an interview at his office in Debevoise Hall on Tuesday, July 18, 2017, in South Royalton, Vt. “If you care about Vermont, you care about Vermont Law School,” McHenry said. “This school is the fabric of Vermont.” (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

Published: 6/25/2018 11:43:43 PM
Modified: 6/25/2018 11:43:47 PM

South Royalton — More than a dozen faculty at Vermont Law School will lose tenure this year as the institution struggles to level its budget, two senior faculty members confirmed.

While many of the tenured faculty will remain at the school on contract, they no longer will have employment protections under tenure.

The school is negotiating terms with each affected member of the faculty this week before the fiscal year ends on Friday, the sources confirmed. Some contract faculty have not been given renewal offers; others have been encouraged to retire.

President Thomas McHenry was tight-lipped about the nature of the reductions in an interview last week, including the number of faculty who would not be returning to the school, saying it was a personnel matter. The school employs about 60 faculty, 20 of which are tenure positions.

“We are restructuring the faculty into different positions — some of those people are tenure,” McHenry said. “Some of those people will no longer be tenure.”

Vermont Law School has consistently been the top-ranked environmental law school in the country, attracting notable faculty. McHenry said maintaining the school’s environmental program, which celebrated its 40th anniversary on Friday, would be a priority in budget considerations.

Professor Pat Parenteau, a senior lawyer for the Institute for Energy and the Environment and who is employed under contract, anticipates blowback from the restructuring plan.

“We’re going to be down in the ranks,” he said. “If we want to continue to grow as an outstanding environmental program, we’re going to have to hire.”

VLS board of trustees Chairwoman Colleen Connor emphasized the school’s need to adapt to the changing market.

“As difficult as this process is, we feel confident in the end Vermont Law School will be a stronger, more vibrant institution that is sustainable in the long term and that continues to meet our mission of an exceptional legal education, producing leaders, and being a preeminent environmental law school,” Connor said in a statement.

McHenry, who became president and dean of VLS a year ago, said the restructuring will right-size the law school and address ongoing deficits.

“The restructuring we’re doing is aiding us in having a sustainable financial model,” McHenry said. “We are looking for every efficiency we can find.”

Vermont Law School has faced financial problems over the past five years.

In 2013, VLS eliminated two tenure positions under former President Marc Mihaly. Four tenure faculty positions and four contract positions also were reduced to part time from full time that year. Those cuts reduced the operating budget by about $4 million, bringing it down to $23 million.

The deficit was reduced to $1.1 million in 2016 from $1.4 million in 2015.

In 2017, Vermont Law School received a $17 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which it used to lower the interest rate on existing debt. The institution is paying a 2.25 percent interest rate on the loan over 40 years. McHenry said paying the loan was part of last year’s $23.6 million operating budget.

Though VLS has struggled financially, there has been an uptick in enrollment. After a five-year decline, hitting a low of 129 students in the Juris Doctor program in 2013, McHenry expects 180 incoming students next year, up from 161 this year and 139 the year before.

Total enrollment at Vermont Law School this year is 604 students, two-thirds of whom are pursuing Juris Doctors. The remaining 30 percent of students are seeking graduate degrees.

“For the first time in five years, we have a waiting list,” McHenry said.

One senior professor said faculty were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, eliminating their ability to speak about the status of their positions.

Anita Levy, a senior program officer at American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, said three Vermont Law School professors called her office over the past 10 days, saying their positions had been cut.

“We are monitoring the situation,” Levy said. “From our point of view, the termination of tenure is a very serious matter.”

Vermont Law School adopted AAUP policies for its faculty handbook. McHenry said he believed VLS is “compliant with all the relevant standards.”

The nature of the restructuring efforts, however, could violate AAUP policies, Levy said. The association makes recommendations for institutions to follow to protect academic freedom. One of those policies is to allow faculty to participate in decisions and be allowed due process when positions or programs are at risk due to financial reasons.

Violating AAUP’s policies could put the institution on AAUP’s censured list, which could impact its ability to attract faculty in the future.

Levy acknowledged the challenges institutions like VLS face. She said changes to the legal profession over the past 10 years has had an impact on law schools throughout the country.

“More lawyers are working hourly rates rather than getting jobs,” she said.

David Mears, 54, the associate dean for the VLS environmental program and director of the Environmental Law Center, resigned from his position earlier this month with plans to leave at the end of June.

“There were a lot of issues that went into my thinking,” said Mears, who is employed at Vermont Law School under contract. He said he chose to resign.

“The economics of running a law school have remained difficult,” Mears said.

State Sen. Alison Clarkson’s husband Oliver Goodenough has been a professor at the school since 1992. Goodenough, who has a tenure position and is co-director of the Center for Legal Innovation, declined to comment on the status of his position on Thursday evening. Clarkson, D-Woodstock, also declined to comment.

“It’s the reason we moved to this state,” said Clarkson, whose son Ward Goodenough also graduated from VLS in 2015. “It’s one of the crown jewels in Vermont. We are training the best environmental lawyers in the country.”

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