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A case for education: UND School of Law mulls tuition hikes in light of budget cuts

A cyclist pedals past the UND Law School in a light snow squall Wednesday afternoon in Grand Forks. Final exams began Wednesday at the Law School and continue through next week. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
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Gerald VandeWalle, chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, says there aren't many attorneys left in the field from his graduating law class at UND.

"I was 1958," said the 83-year-old judge. "There are still two of us licensed in the state, I believe."

VandeWalle described the UND School of Law, which is now working to accommodate a 12 percent, across-the-board university budget reduction, as a "direct pipeline" of attorneys into the state's judiciary. Though he said the prospect of the $677,000 cut to the state's sole law school wasn't a surprise in the tightening fiscal landscape of North Dakota higher education, VandeWalle expressed concern about the possible impact of the budget reduction on legal studies.

"I think it's going to be pretty well back to basics for the law school and there aren't going to be many frills," he said. "If indeed there were frills, and I'm not sure there were any to begin with."

As a whole, UND is expected to absorb a biennial reduction of its state appropriation by about $32 million for the 2017-19 budgetary period, a cut passed down as a result of decreased state revenues in the face of weak agricultural and oil commodity prices. UND School of Law Dean Kathryn Rand said the program is working to digest its portion of this year's cut after weathering similar reductions last year.

"We were lean going into this spring," Rand said. "Now we're leaner."

As part of that slimming, she said the school's leaders have found themselves "in a position where we're making some decisions we'd hoped we wouldn't have to make."

One of the toughest hits for the school has been the defunding of adjunct staff positions filled with practicing attorneys and sitting judges. Before last year's round of budget cuts, Rand said the school had eight such adjunct employees working with students and teaching the school's summer law programs, which will now be eliminated. She says a few of those instructors have agreed to work unpaid for the near term but said that voluntary situation is "not sustainable" and expected in the coming year to see the number dwindle to "one or two folks that are teaching for us."

"We don't think that's reflecting what our adjuncts actually contribute to students' educational experience, and we hope that's something we can reverse in the future," Rand said.

The loss of adjunct staff isn't the only readily visible implication of the budget reduction. Earlier this year, Rand announced the school's student law clinic, a program designed to give students more hands-on legal experience, is set to enter a two-year hiatus as a result of budget reductions.

Hopes for tuition increase

Though law schools across the country are struggling with shrinking class sizes paired with a glut of attorneys in metropolitan areas, enrollment at the UND law school remains steady.

Rand said the school targets about 85 incoming students each year, a pool she hopes to sustain for the time being. With enrollment capacity more or less fixed for now, the school is pushing against the revenue limits of its tuition. The program has traditionally had a reputation as one of the cheapest accredited programs, if not the outright lowest cost institution in the country. Credit for credit, Rand said, it's cheaper to go to UND's law school than it is to pursue an undergraduate degree at the university.

Though affordability is usually a key factor in higher education, she said easy access needs to be paired with a quality program. As such, Rand believes the school needs to examine raising its tuition, which is currently pegged to the general costs of undergraduate tuition at UND.

"In the short-term, we'd like to see some flexibility for the law school to make some, in dollar amounts, relatively modest increases to tuition that will at least bring us in line with UND's graduate program tuition," Rand said. "In the longer term, I think we'd like to see differential tuition for the law school and a tuition we could set at a level that's appropriate for legal education."

The tuition and revenue question has gained momentum as it has become apparent the school will be making some adjustments to programs to bring itself into alignment with the university's strategic plan objectives.

Rand said the school's focus in that larger plan is to reshape programs in petroleum and energy law, as well as to look to other areas of law relevant to Canadian students whom she described as a demographic which continues to express high interest in legal education.

UND President Mark Kennedy said the universitywide strategic plan will include an emphasis on improvements to graduation rates.

Kennedy, who has testified to state lawmakers that institutions would be better off dealing with higher tuition rates than deeper budget cuts, said the question of students paying "a few percent more is a far less important issue than whether they graduate" or pass the bar exam.

Kennedy described current tuition rates at the school as "not rational nor sustainable" and said he didn't believe it was in the best interest of the program to be known as the lowest priced law school in the country. He said the university is now looking at options to establish different rates.

In the meantime, as the school adapts to reduced funding, VandeWalle believes the "back to basics" approach makes use of some well-placed efficiency cuts while at the same time trimming away some valuable teaching tools. The end result may be a school that feels even more familiar to him.

"I will say this about 1958—there were no legal clinics, very few adjuncts and very few electives," he said. "We took the courses offered and that was it, with no electives or anything like that. It sounds like we'll be pretty close to that kind of operation."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers county, health and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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