Vermont Law School to consider move to Burlington

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2020 8:47:03 PM
Modified: 12/7/2020 8:46:59 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — Officials at Vermont Law School are working on a strategic plan to restructure the state’s only law school and keep it in South Royalton, but relocating the campus to Burlington is also under consideration, the chairman of the VLS Board of Trustees said on Monday.

Glenn Berger, a retired energy lawyer who now lives in Barnard, said law schools across the country “have taken a huge hit in terms of applications and students” in recent years and that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated concerns about their financial stability.

“VLS, like other law schools, is looking at options to improve its financial health, and the law school is looking at essentially all options that are available to it,” Berger said in a phone interview.

Berger said VLS started a strategic planning process about nine months ago with a focus on staying in South Royalton, with one possibility being to increase the ranks of students in graduate programs, such as master’s degrees for existing lawyers and others who want to specialize in certain fields, as opposed to the current emphasis on students attending VLS for a traditional law degree.

VLS might also look at launching other programs akin to its recently created restorative justice program, which has won a $3 million federal grant, Berger said.

VLS, which is private, held its first classes in 1973 in what was then the old South Royalton schoolhouse. Berger, who earned a Juris Doctor degree there in 1978, said many of its alumni, students and faculty value the character of the school that comes from its presence in South Royalton.

“That’s very important,” he said. “The real focus of this is what can we do to change our curriculum and change our structure in order to create a sustainable model to stay in South Royalton.”

Accordingly, he said, VLS trustees at their October meeting voted to continue with the strategic planning related to its existing campus, but also approved a second resolution to explore moving to Burlington.

Some VLS supporters have long advocated folding the law school into the umbrella of University of Vermont.

The two schools currently offer a joint degree program offering a bachelor’s degree from UVM in three years and a J.D. degree in two years.

Berger acknowledged that a merger with UVM has been “bantered about” for years, though no formal plan is in the works.

But given Burlington’s location in the heart of Chittenden County, which has a population of 163,000 and a more dynamic economy than the White River Valley, other issues may also be at play.

VLS in January opened a satellite office in downtown Burlington that includes an immigration clinic and admissions office.

“There are synergies in Burlington” that could enhance VLS’s financial model, he said.

Students this fall took classes remotely at VLS, and total enrollment for all programs — including classes that would have been online anyway — was 626. Tuition ranges from $40,350 for a master’s program to $48,250 for a J.D. degree.

The school’s operating budget of about $20 million makes it a major economic engine in Royalton, population 2,800.

News of a possible relocation first surfaced at the Nov. 24 Royalton Selectboard meeting, when Chairman Chris Noble relayed a conversation he had had with outgoing VLS President and Dean Thomas McHenry.

Noble said the town would continue to “work very hard” to keep South Royalton as an attractive location for VLS, but also said McHenry cited Burlington’s proximity to an airport and ample hotel lodging as benefits for the school if it hopes to attract more students for shorter programs and course offerings.

Royalton, by comparison, is about a 75-minute drive to Burlington International Airport, in good weather.

“Most of their revenue comes from tuition. They are not heavily endowed, that’s no secret,” Noble said. “They need students.”

Berger said McHenry’s planned departure in June after four years in South Royalton is unrelated to the pending decision about where VLS should be in the future, but also said the airport and lodging issues were not the main factors in considering Burlington.

News that VLS might consider moving was met by apprehension in the White River Valley.

State Rep. John O’Brien, a Tunbridge Democrat who also represents Royalton, said he hadn’t heard any talk in Montpelier about a merger with UVM, and noted that other colleges in the state are already grappling with questions about their future.

“It is such a challenging time in general for higher education, and then you add the pandemic to it,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine South Royalton now without Vermont Law School. It’s just been such a huge economic driver to the town and the area.”

And Royalton Selectboard member John Dumville, who sometimes rents a room to VLS students, said restaurants, hair salons, landlords and other merchants would all suffer if VLS departed.

“They are extremely critical to the town, and many people are very worried,” said Dumville, who also noted that the students bring important elements of diversity and energy to White River Valley.

“They are one of the biggest taxpayers in the town,” Dumville said of VLS, “and the students are an incredible asset to the town.”

Berger said there is no immediate time frame for a decision, and that the strategic planning is expected to continue for about six more months.

News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.




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