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The University of Massachusetts’ plan to create the state’s first public law school is a “high-risk, low-reward proposition” that would cost taxpayers up to $39 million over the next seven years, according to a report commissioned by two private law schools. Earlier this month, an independent review board concluded that allowing UMass to absorb the Southern New England School of Law in Dartmouth probably wouldn’t cost the state much money. However, a 50-page report issued Friday by Suffolk University Law School and New England School of Law in Boston claims UMass officials have “dramatically underestimated” the costs of the proposed merger. The plan would cost the state a minimum of $2.5 million annually, or $17.5 million over seven years, and could cost as much as $39 million if UMass is unable to retain all of the tuition revenue generated by a new law school, according to the report. “Three years of budget cuts have taken their toll on the (UMass) system. … The system is not in a position to absorb the additional expense of subsidizing an unaccredited law school,” says the report, written by policy analyst Charles Chieppo. The report also questions whether UMass can meet its goal of getting the law school accredited by the American Bar Association by 2007. It could take six years, if not longer, for the school to be accredited, and without being accredited, it will be “virtually impossible” for the law school to increase its enrollment and increase its revenue, the report concludes. “There seems to be no countervailing argument to merit (UMass) absorbing the true and continuing costs of merging with and expanding Southern New England School of Law,” Chieppo wrote. UMass spokesman John Hoey said the report, produced by two direct competitors of the proposed law school, was “clearly tainted.” The independent panel, which concluded the school posed little financial risk to the state, was led by the dean of the Nebraska School of Law and is far more credible than a report by two rival schools, he said. “They have been waging a campaign of disinformation that has been discredited by experts who truly are independent,” Hoey said. UMass’ Board of Trustees approved the proposed merger in December. The state Board of Higher Education is scheduled to vote on the plan at its March 31 meeting. In the meantime, Suffolk and New England law schools hired Chieppo, a former policy director in Gov. Mitt Romney’s budget office, to analyze the merger plan and share his findings at a board subcommittee next week. Chieppo also worked for the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think-tank best known for its support of charter schools. A UMass-run law school could create serious competition for smaller, private law schools like Suffolk Law School and New England School of Law. “That doesn’t change the fact that the information we’re providing is accurate,” John O’Brien, dean of New England School of Law, said of Chieppo’s report. O’Brien and many of his colleagues question the need for a publicly funded law school in Massachusetts. “The private law schools have more than adequately fulfilled the need for legal education in the state,” he said. Lynette Robinson-Weening, associate vice chancellor of the Board of Higher Education, said all of the board members received copies of Chieppo’s report this week. “We’re in the middle of digesting it,” she added. Board Chairman Steve Tocco did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Tuition at the UMass law school is expected to cost roughly $19,000 a year, almost half the tuition at some private law schools. The new law school’s proposed operating budget, around $5 million a year, would account for less than a third of a percent of the UMass system’s $1.7 billion annual budget. Last week, in response to the independent panel’s review, UMass President Jack Wilson and UMass-Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack recommended proceeding with the merger. “Nothing has been found in the review that indicates that we should cease or delay our establishment of the UMass School of Law,” Wilson and MacCormack wrote. “The benefits very much outweigh the risks.” Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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