Law School, Tennessee State End Merger Negotiations
Negotiations to merge the Nashville School of Law into Tennessee State University — required by the settlement of a desegregation lawsuit against Tennessee’s higher education system — have been broken off by the law school out of concern over the state’s persistent budget troubles.
The chairman of the law school’s board of directors, Tom Cone, informed the Tennessee Board of Regents that the law school trustees unanimously decided to end the merger talks.
Tennessee faces a $350 million shortfall in the fiscal year ending June 30. With lawmakers stymied over finding a new revenue source, budget proposals have been introduced to cut next year’s spending by $775 million, including taking up to $90 million from higher education.
“It has become increasingly apparent to us that the funds provided by the consent decree are woefully inadequate for their intended purpose, and without adequate funding, we have no assurance that the mission of the Nashville School of Law can be preserved,” Cone wrote to Regents Chancellor Charles Manning.
The settlement of the 34-year-old Geier desegregation case required the merger talks, but not the merger itself. That provision of the settlement aimed to use a law school to help historically Black Tennessee State attract more White students. The merger also would have allowed the 91-year-old night law school to earn accreditation from the American Bar Association (ABA), allowing its graduates to join the bar in states besides Tennessee.
“We were very disappointed,” says Howard C. Gentry, assistant vice president for university relations and development at Tennessee State University. “But in spite of being disappointed, we are encouraged about the fact that we were able to develop a plan for a law school at TSU that was accepted by the Board of Regents and by consultants who are familiar with ABA requirements.”
Geier, executive counselor to the commissioner of the Social Security Administration in Washington, called the law school’s board “shortsighted.” “I just think it’s a real tragic mistake,” she says.
Manning said the Regents will proceed with Plan B as outlined in the settlement agreement, which calls for the addition of a new doctoral-level program with a high demand at Tennessee State.
Gentry, who served on the negotiation committee, says he still hopes there might be consideration made by the law school to revise areas of concern that TSU did not have a chance to address face to face, specifically the financial concerns.
In the meantime, he says, “We know TSU can do a law school. Whether that would occur without partnering with Nashville is a decision that would have to be made by the Board of Regents. And to date, I do not know if that is a consideration.”
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