Old foe resurfaces as law school pursues accreditation

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The UMass School of Law may be up and running and financially healthy, but some of its old opponents are still taking aim at it at a critical time.

Steve Poftak, budget chief under law school opponent Gov. Mitt Romney and now at the Pioneer Institute in Boston, posted an opinion blog in March criticizing the fledgling law school’s progress and transparency, or lack of it.

He charged that the school has pushed back the target dates for meeting higher benchmarks in grade point averages, LSAT scores, and bar exam pass rates.

UMass spokesman John Hoey pushed back on the pushback, saying that the law school is comfortably “at or near” its targets in all of those categories.

Not only that, Hoey said, but UMass Law is already proving to be a moneymaker for the commonwealth as opposed to what its critics thought would be — a financial drain.

“You will remember,” Hoey wrote in an email, that the institute and the three private law schools would always argue that the law school would cost taxpayers money. Here’s the reality: In its first full year of operation the school returned $918,000 to the commonwealth, $244,000 more than projected.”

And rather than being a negative as Poftak portrayed it, Hoey said that “the first graduating class of UMass Law had a 78 percent first-time-taker bar pass rate. This is an extraordinary rate for a new school. And you will recall that these students only had one year at UMass Law.”

The criticism of UMass Law from Pioneer was predictable, law school supporters said, because it has been consistent, and often misleading. Pioneer was connected to an eleventh-hour document on the law school merger just before the state Board of Higher Education voted down the merger in 2005.

MarDee Xifaras, head of the board of trustees at the former Southern New England School of Law, said, “Consider the source. They play with statistics.” They also partner with private law schools, notably Suffolk and New England, to run interference, she said.

The timing now is no mystery. UMass Law is being reviewed by the accreditation board of the American Bar Association. There are high expectations that it will win preliminary approval, which would be a landmark and a validation of the state’s first public law school.

Xifaras said, “I don’t think ABA pays much attention” to Pioneer.

Poftak titled his blog, “Calling for transparency at UMass Law School,” complained that it took many months to obtain formation from UMass through the state’s Open Records Law.

Hoey said that the school never received a request directly from Pioneer, but rather dealt with an entity called muckrock.com, an organization devoted to open government.

Muckrock’s website bears Hoey out; it did act on behalf of Pioneer.

But it also bears out Poftak’s complaint that it took many months to get a substantive response from UMass. Muckrock posted the complete e-mail exchange with UMass on its website.

Its original request was made on June 7, 2011, and bounced from the law school to the provost later that month. The 10-day legal deadline for a response including cost and availability came and went.

The request languished with the provost until late November despite repeated reminders from Muckrock. It finally had found its way to Hoey.

Finally, on Dec. 15, Hoey asked Muckrock to narrow the request because it was otherwise virtually impossible to fulfill, and Muckrock agreed.

Three more reminders followed, and on Feb. 27 Hoey told Muckrock the material was nearly ready. It was sent on March 13.

“No question it took some time,” Hoey said. “They wanted information from a private institution going back a decade. That’s what I responded to.”

“We respond the best we can in as timely fashion and in as professional fashion as we can,” Hoey said. “We get multiple public records requests and respond as fast as we possibly can trying to balance cost of responding to them with the public need to know.”

As far as transparency goes, Hoey answered Poftak by saying, “There has been no academic program in the history of public higher education in Massachusetts that has undergone more scrutiny.” The process has been completely transparent, he said.

Also seen in South Coast Today.