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Massachusetts Approves Public Law School

BOSTON – The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education approved a plan Tuesday to create the state’s first public law school.

Members of the board, meeting in Bridgewater, voted unanimously to accept the Southern New England School of Law’s offer to donate its campus, valued at $23 million, to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

With the board’s final approval, UMass-Dartmouth officials are set to open the law school in September. Tuition and fees for the 2010-2011 academic year will be about $23,500 for in-state students and $31,000 for out-of-state students.

University of Massachusetts President Jack M. Wilson called the vote “a historic moment for public higher education in Massachusetts.” He said residents in 44 other states already have access to a public law school education.

“A public law school means that law students will graduate with less debt and will have more flexibility in making their career choices,” Wilson said in a statement.

UMass-Dartmouth said a special panel of academics, judges, attorneys and higher education experts is being formed to help with the merger. Current Southern New England students will be invited to transfer to the new school. Officials said the merger could take several weeks.

Officials said a range of financial aid will be available, including a public interest fellowship program that will provide a 50 percent discount for 25 students each year who agree to practice public interest law after graduating.

UMass-Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack said approval of the school will open opportunities for students “who couldn’t even consider aspiring to a law school education due to cost or geography.”

Gov. Deval Patrick, who supports the new law school, said the proposal has been thoroughly studied and should be a financial boon to the university system.

Other groups have objected to it, saying the state can’t afford another major public investment in the midst of ongoing fiscal woes.

The Pioneer Institute, a Beacon Hill think tank, said the law school proposal would end up costing Massachusetts taxpayers more than $50 million over the next five years and require ongoing annual subsidies of $8 million to $11 million.

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly also opposes the move, saying the proposed financing plan for the law school is unconstitutional.

Reilly said that, under the Massachusetts constitution, all tuition collected at state colleges and universities must be funneled back to the state’s general fund.

He said the law school proposal skirts that rule by labeling as “fees” nearly 90 percent of what students would pay in education costs. State schools are allowed to keep fees. Reilly has been hired by the New England School of Law in Boston but said his opinion comes from his years as the state’s top law enforcement officer from 1999 to 2007.

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees had previously approved the plan by a 14-4 margin.

The plan would require the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth to send tuition revenue from the proposed law school to the state but would allow the campus to retain student fees.

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