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Vermont Law School Plans Faculty Cuts

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2018 11:43:37 PM
Modified: 5/30/2018 11:43:47 PM

Royalton — As part of an ongoing campaign to right itself financially, the Vermont Law School is working out the details of a cost-saving “faculty restructuring” that will result in a reduction of the workforce.

“Our target is maximum programmatic efficiency and value,” President Thomas McHenry said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “Our major priorities are preserving our strong (juris doctorate) program, maintaining our strong environmental program, and keeping the immensely strong sense of community we have here.”

McHenry said that, in a process that began last October, all faculty positions are being reviewed for efficiency gains to help the law school recover from the effects of a national downturn in enrollment that hit its nadir a few years ago.

McHenry declined to discuss details of the restructuring process, which is expected to be completed in late June, but gave examples of expected outcomes that include shifting some professors to professor emeritus status, reducing the teaching and programmatic load for others, and asking others to take on more responsibilities.

Several members of the faculty, including some senior professors with tenure, declined comment.

While no staff members have been cut at this point, McHenry has identified some faculty who say they’re willing to restructure their jobs. Others won’t have a choice.

“We’re looking at the whole range of options, both voluntary and not,” he said.

Though he described himself as optimistic about the school’s long term prospects, McHenry said the changes are needed to keep the law school viable.

“All institutions have to be worried about solvency. We have a small endowment and very limited state and federal funding,” he said. “The restructuring we’re going through is designed to address those concerns.”

Last year, the school employed 135 faculty and staff (not including summer, adjunct and online faculty) and taught more than 630 students (including about 140 online students). Because it brings so many people into the community, it’s an economic engine for the town of Royalton, according to Selectboard Chairman Larry Trottier.

“It is important,” Trottier said. “It makes many of the businesses along there viable, and the rental apartments all around are used by the students. If the law school were gone, it wouldn’t be the same.”

In 2013, the school underwent a series of layoffs, and trimmed its operating budget — now roughly $23 million — by about $4 million. McHenry said there is no specific target for the current round of cost-savings, other than “as much efficiency as possible” while maintaining the school’s standards.

The news of the cost-cutting staff changes comes in the wake of a rocky semester during which some members of the student body rallied to defend the school’s good name, while others questioned its finances amid what some called a “culture of scarcity.”

Last year, the school received a $17 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help balance its budget.

McHenry pointed to signs that the school, which gets 75 percent of its annual budget from tuition revenues, is bouncing back from the financial hits of the recession that began in 2007.

Despite a 3 percent tuition hike (to $48,254) planned to take effect in the fall semester, McHenry said that enrollment is rebounding to pre-recession levels. This fall’s incoming JD class is projected to be 183 students, up from 161 in the current school year and 148 in fall 2016.

McHenry said VLS also is poised to take advantage of a change in the standards of the American Bar Association that doubled the number of online credits that can be earned toward a JD, to the equivalent of a year of schooling.

“Theoretically, you could do law school in one year of residence that includes summer, fall, spring, and then a year of online coursework, and then a semester in practice, which you might think of as an externship,” he said.

McHenry said the law school, which was founded in 1972, is looking forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary in a few years.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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