A Boston-based think tank is claiming the University of Massachusetts School of Law has been quietly extending the timetable for still-unmet academic goals that were set when the school opened its doors in 2010.
The fiscally conservative Pioneer Institute alleges that UMass has essentially moved the goalposts by putting off anticipated benchmarks for GPA and LSAT scores at the Dartmouth school.
The findings — posted on the group’s website at www.pioneerinst.wpengine.com — surfaced following a prolonged public records request Pioneer engaged in with the school, according to the institute.
It says it also based its assertions on a slide show presentation by the UMass-Dartmouth chancellor in February that detailed the public law school’s academic projections.
Those projections differed from the figures and dates set forth in the final application for the law school program that was submitted to UMass officials in the fall of 2009.
UMass, meanwhile, dismisses Pioneer’s claims, saying they are born out of ideological bias rather than academic research.
But the timing of Pioneer’s alleged findings comes at a delicate time for the school, which is in the middle of trying to secure provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association. ABA recognition plays a critical role in the reputation of a law school.
If UMass were to receive accreditation, law school graduates could sit for the bar exam in any jurisdiction in the country. Currently, graduates can take the bar only in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Once admitted to either of those bars, they are eligible to take the exam in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
It is unclear when the ABA will announce its decision. The association declined to comment for this story, but Margaret D. Xifaras, a New Bedford attorney who sits on the board of trustees for UMass, said there could be an answer as early as this week. Others connected to the accreditation process have suggested a decision may not be made until later in the summer.
‘Not going to end well’
Steve Poftak, a research director at the Pioneer Institute, said the law school originally anticipated a 3.2 grade point average by the 2012-2013 academic year, but now does not expect to meet that goal until 2015-2016.
The entering class for the last two years had a GPA of 3.0, according to UMass documents provided by Pioneer.
The school is also softening its expectations for LSAT scores, Poftak said, with UMass now seeking an average score of 150 by 2015-2016; previously, the school had hoped to reach that milestone by the 2012-2013 school year.
The average LSAT scores for incoming UMass law students for 2011-2012 was 144.
“One of the things that’s really lacking for me is they didn’t say, ‘We’re going from point A to point B,’” Poftak said. “They said, ‘We’re going to point B, but we’re not going to tell you what point A is.’”
UMass “never put in a realistic plan,” Proftak added, and now no one appears to be holding the school accountable.
Charles D. Chieppo, a senior fellow at Pioneer who is an attorney, agreed that the school has managed to avoid being measured by any form of metrics.
He further questioned how a law school, which he deemed “miles below ABA standards,” will improve without significant injections of cash. Additional funding will be needed to upgrade the library and to hire faculty, Chieppo said, noting that such initiatives may be necessary to meet and maintain ABA standards.
“It’s not going to end well,” Chieppo said. “From beginning to end, it has reeked of a political deal. … There’s absolutely nothing about this entire deal that adds up.”
‘At, near or above all of our metrics’
For its part, UMass argues that the conservative Pioneer Institute has opposed the state’s only public law school since the day it was proposed.
John Hoey, an assistant chancellor and spokesman at UMass-Dartmouth, said Poftak’s criticisms can be attributed, in part, to Poftak’s stint in the Executive Office of Administration & Finance under Republican Gov. Mitt Romney — something Poftak dismisses as irrelevant.
Moreover, Hoey said it was unclear how Poftak derived his facts and figures, especially since the Pioneer director never spoke to either him or his colleagues. In fact, Hoey maintained, the school is “at, near or above” all its metrics.
But when repeatedly asked for documentation to back up that claim, Hoey provided none.
Xifaras, meanwhile, said the public policy research institute’s concerns that taxpayers will have to bear some of the cost of the school are proving unfounded.
According to Hoey, since 2010, the state has received $1.3 million from the law school. All tuition money goes to state coffers, with only school fees staying “on campus,” he said.
However, Poftak challenged UMass on that front as well.
While the law school is showing positive net income, “the issue is what resources are being used from a balance sheet point of view to get the school up to a level where it might be accredited,” he said in an email. “Frankly, that’s a practical impossibility to determine given the size of UMass-Dartmouth and the complexity of its assets.”
Years in the making and still miles to go
It has been a long and often uphill battle for the University of Massachusetts School of Law.
On March 31, 2005, the Board of Higher Education denied an application allowing UMass-Dartmouth to award juris doctor degrees. Four years later, Southern New England School of Law, which did not have American Bar Association accreditation, offered its real estate as well as “tangible and intangible assets to facilitate UMass Dartmouth being able to offer a J.D.”
The offer was the equivalent of a $23 million gift.
In February 2010, the state authorized UMass-Dartmouth to grant law degrees.
Since that time enrollment has increased. In fall 2009, SNESL had a total student enrollment of 236, according to UMass documents provided by the Pioneer Institute, a public policy think tank. Last fall, that number was 335, below the university’s projection of 356. By fall 2012, UMass projects a student enrollment of 373, according to the documents.
The school now finds itself in the midst of the ABA accreditation process, which can take years and involve multiple site evaluations. A law school cannot apply for provisional approval by the ABA until it has been in operation for one year; once it gains provisional approval, the school is closely monitored for at least three years. For full approval, a school must undergo a process identical to that of provisional approval, according to the ABA’s website.
Undertaking the ABA accreditation process would have been difficult for SNESL, which did not have deep pockets as a small, independent nonprofit, according to UMass trustee Margaret D. Xifaras, the former chair of SNESL’s board of trustees.
The financial stability of the five-campus UMass system is key for the ABA accreditation, she added.
Also seen in Dolan Media Company.