By this time next year, Texas Wesleyan School of Law could have a new name: Texas A&M University School of Law at Texas Wesleyan University.

The deal has been in the works since October 2011. Today both universities, as well as The Texas A&M University System, are announcing they signed a letter of intent for A&M University to pay $20 million to assume ownership and operations of Texas Wesleyan’s law school; A&M would pay Texas Wesleyan an additional $5 million within five years of closing, says A&M System spokesman Steve Moore. Texas Wesleyan would remain the owner of the land and facilities and would rent them to A&M.

The deal would transform the Texas Wesleyan law school from a private to a public law school.

A&M System Chancellor John Sharp says A&M has always wanted a law school because it “rounds out” the A&M System’s professional schools.

“A law school is a professional school that’s extremely important to any university, particularly one [that is] No. 1 in research in the state,” Sharp says. “A&M has looked at other law schools in the past. Texas Wesleyan is the only one we approached that was interested in a partnership.”

Sharp says Texas Wesleyan agreed with renaming the school, A&M directing the curriculum and A&M’s overall vision for the law school.

Texas Wesleyan President Fred Slabach says his university wants to partner with A&M because it’s a tier-one research university that is offering a “collaborative partnership.” He says, “Together we are going to be able to create a No. 1-tier law school.”

“It’s one of the opportunities we saw that could move the law school further in terms of our aspirations to make it a truly national law school,” Slabach says of the partnership.

In the 2011 and 2012 U.S. News & World Report rankings of American Bar Association-accredited law schools, Texas Wesleyan School of Law was not ranked. U.S. News & World Report ranks only those U.S. law schools it selects as among the top 150.

A&M and Texas Wesleyan plan to offer a joint master’s of business administration and law degree program, and a program in which students complete three years of undergraduate studies and three years of law school, graduating with both degrees in six years instead of seven.

Slabach says he’s unsure how the agreement will impact Wesleyan law faculty, but he says he thinks A&M would want to hire more professors.

Texas Wesleyan spokesman John Veilleux declines comment on how the partnership could impact Texas Wesleyan law students and alumni, but he notes, “Students and alumni are going to be at the top of our list in terms of making sure their needs are taken care of.”

The letter of intent opens the door for the parties to negotiate the details of the agreement, says Moore. If talks progress smoothly and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approves the agreement, A&M University would assume control of Texas Wesleyan law school on June 1, 2013, Moore says.

Moore notes he expects the Texas A&M Board of Regents to grant its formal approval later this week. Veilleux says the Texas Wesleyan University Board of Trustees approved the agreement on Monday.

When asked why A&M wants to enter the law school business at a time when new law grads are struggling with poor job prospects and hefty student loans, Sharp replies that some law schools “may be producing lawyers people don’t want,” but the A&M law school would produce intellectual property lawyers who are in high demand nationwide. Sharp says Texas A&M excels in graduating chemists, engineers, and other professionals who are uniquely qualified to practice patent law.

“We intend to fill that market and produce the best in the world,” Sharp says.

Slabach notes Texas Wesleyan law school already offers an IP law certificate program, which makes Texas Wesleyan a “great fit” for A&M.

The University of North Texas has worked for years to establish a new public law school in Dallas, but the plan has seen delays. With state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, leading the effort, in 2009 the UNT proposal finally got legislative and gubernatorial approval for state funding; $5 million of the state’s 2010-2011 budget was earmarked for the proposed institution. In April 2013, according to the proposed UNT Dallas College of Law’s website, Senior U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson of the Northern District of Texas is scheduled to begin serving as the proposed law school’s founding dean. The school, slated for a building in downtown Dallas, is scheduled to open in August 2014.

When asked why A&M would try starting its public law school in the same North Texas market, Sharp replies, “In this instance Texas Wesleyan is where it is. It had nothing to do with considerations of other schools starting, and maybe not starting. It was: ‘This is where it is, this is who we are partnering with.’ “

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