It’s a tough time to lead a law school, and no one knows that better than Vermont Law School President and Dean Marc Mihaly.
Mihaly has spent the past four months since he became dean in a flurry of meetings to address a looming $3.3 million budget shortfall brought on by declining enrollment. At the same time, he’s contemplating longer-term changes in how law is taught.
Vermont is taking a two-pronged approach to the estimated 14 percent revenue decline next academic year. First, the school is looking to reduce costs through voluntarily staff buyouts, which could extend to faculty if there are not enough takers. Second, Vermont plans to increase the number of LL.M and certificate programs it offers in order to boost tuition revenue.
“Sooner or later, I think everyone will have to face what we’re facing right now,” said Mihaly in a November 26 interview. He noted that as a standalone law school, Vermont cannot rely on a larger university to plug budget shortfalls as a stop gap. “We’re all facing the winds of sweeping change,” he said.
The voluntary buyout offers went out in late November, and administrators hope that the buyouts will get them most of the way to their goal. Still, Mihaly predicted that additional cutting will be necessary.
“I think it’s safe to say that some sort of voluntary buyout package will be offered to the faculty, and I think it will be early next year,” Mihaly said. “We don’t want to go there if we don’t have to.”
Though many law schools have reduced student enrollment over the past two years, they have largely been reluctant to cut faculty accordingly. For one thing, tenure makes faculty reductions a complicated matter.
Vermont used to bring in about 200 new J.D. students each year, but in 2010 it enrolled just 150 1Ls. That number has rebounded somewhat to about 170 this year, but administrators have developed a contingency plan under which they only have 150 new students next fall, Mihaly said.
“It’s the consensus of the faculty that it would be a mistake to count on anything like the return of those larger class sizes,” he said. “We’re aiming to have 170 students next year, but it could be as few as 150.”
The law school began the process of belt tightening last year, but is looking to make larger changes that will ensure sustainability in a future of smaller J.D. classes.
Part of that sustainability may well be a greater focus on online, LL.M, and certificate programs centered on the school’s historically strong environmental law program.
The school began offering an online LL.M in environmental law in 2011, and that course has proven to be popular with students, Mihaly said. The school also plans to ramp up its two-year accelerated J.D. program. Administrators also hope that the addition of specialized advanced law programs will also attract more J.D. students who have specific career aspirations.
Beyond that, Vermont is exploring how to better integrate students’ work and academic lives with the idea that the traditional model of taking three years to attend a brick-and-mortar law school will wane in popularity.
“Finding a way to allow people to earn and learn at the same time is the future,” Mihaly said.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org.