Amid budget cuts and an unsuccessful dean's search, the State Board of Higher Education is searching for ways to bring extra attention to the UND School of Law during what one board member says is a "very critical" time for the state's only law school.

During a recent budget and finance committee meeting, discussions began on how to best help the law school, including the possibility of giving the school its own line item in UND's budget which would allow legislators to see appropriations going to the law school.

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Board member Dan Traynor was asked to become involved by the State Bar Association because "the lawyers in the state, the judges in the state have significant concerns about" the law school, he said.

"It's our only law school," he said. "It provides a workforce for our third branch of government and it provides lawyers for the people of North Dakota."

The law school is in "a very critical," time, Traynor added, noting that the school needs some "immediate attention" from the State Board of Higher Education and likely from the Legislature as well.

The school recently had a failed dean's search after several months of work. Traynor said he was told that the reason one of the finalists turned down the position was because the state does not "appear to be supporting a legal education in North Dakota."

"I think we need to turn that perception around, we need to properly fund the law school. And unlike the medical school or any other school at the University of North Dakota, no undergraduates are taught at the law school. It's only a professional school," he said.

Tammy Dolan, vice chancellor for administrative affairs and chief financial officer at NDUS, said the university system could approach the Senate Appropriations Committee about adding an amendment to the NDUS budget for the law school to have its own line item in the UND budget.

Complex formula

UND receives funding based on the number of credit hours students complete, said Karla Stewart, associate vice president for finance.

The state funding generated for those completed credit hours is intended to provide funding for all activities at the university, even administrative activities and offices, which don't generate money from the credit hours, she said.

While other colleges within the university share students, Stewart said the law school only serves graduate students so it cannot rely on a wide reach of students for dollars generated by tuition.

Certain programs, such as the law school, are weighted differently, meaning they receive more money per credit hour because it is "very expensive" to provide, Stewart said.

Stewart said 100 percent of funding from credits completed go back to the law school, except for a portion that's returned to central administration to cover the law school's share of indirect operating costs of the university. However, if the law school loses 10 students or their enrollment is not stable, they will see a decrease in funding.

"Not only do they get less tuition, they get less money from the funding formula from the state, too," she said.

Jed Shivers, vice president for finance and operations at UND, said UND is supportive of the idea to move the law school to its own line item in the budget.

"We understand the need to have the law school in effect called out as a separate line item," he said. "We want to make sure that the law school is treated under the same governance process as all of the other schools are treated and other programs are treated. That's one of our concerns. We're good with moving this forward in the direction that's being discussed."

Budget cuts

Declining state revenue led to significant budget cuts across the state in the last biennium, including a heavy hit to the North Dakota University System and UND.

UND saw an overall budget reduction of 12 percent or $32 million for 2017-19 biennium. Based on the appropriated budgets from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018, the UND School of Law's reduction was also 12 percent.

During that time, operating revenue started decreasing, in part, due to a $1.3 million decrease in state appropriations generated from the higher education funding formula. During the 2017 fiscal year, the law school received $5.5 million in funding formula-generated state appropriations and $2.2 million was generated through tuition revenue. However, despite a slight increase in tuition revenue in the 2018 fiscal year, state appropriations dipped to $4.2 million.

As state funding has decreased, operating expenses have gone up.

Traynor said the law school also needs to be able to raise faculty salaries in order to at least match what practicing lawyers are making in order to make teaching a more attractive venture for lawyers who are in the prime of their careers.

Board member Casey Ryan, who sits on the budget and finance committee, said the board should also consider the needs of other professional programs like aviation and what line item budgeting could look like for them.

Nick Hacker, vice chair of the SBHE and committee member, said the discussion also brings up the reasoning and benefit of charging differential tuition for various programs across the university system.

"I hope that we can have a conversation (with the Legislature) of ensuring that we can charge differential tuition at the end of this session," he said.

The committee plans to continue discussing the topic at future meetings.