Paul L. Caron

Friday, June 28, 2013

Vermont Law School Eliminates 25% of its Full-Time Faculty Positions

VermontVermont Digger reports that in the wake of an expected 30% reduction in its entering class (from 200 to 140) in the past two years, Vermont Law School has eliminated 25% of its full-time faculty positions:

Vermont Law School has made [a number of cost-cutting moves] in the past six months. The school is grappling with a trend that’s afflicting law schools almost across the board -- fewer applicants are applying due to dwindling job prospects and the specter of student debt.

Vermont Law School is particularly vulnerable to financial backlash of that trend because it lacks the shield of a “mothership.” Most law schools are housed within universities, which have been able to absorb their losses.

Class size at VLS dropped from 200 to 170 in 2012, and VLS President Marc Mihaly expects it to take another 30-student plunge this year. The school is still accepting applications, and school officials say they won’t have a final count until the students show up in September.

Mihaly says he is also worried that they’ll see a decline in the average GPA and LSAT scores of the incoming class.

Starting last September, VLS enacted a plan to shrink the school in response to a tuition dollar drought that left it with a $3.3 million budget gap. The school attracted national attention last winter when it cut 12 staff positions — 10 were through voluntary buyouts and two were involuntary.

This past spring, in a quieter move, VLS whittled down its faculty. Eight professors, of the 40 who were eligible, voluntarily moved from full-time to part-time positions. Mihaly estimated that two or three other positions were eliminated when professors departed for personal reasons.

VLS has been pruning expenses elsewhere, too. It has cut down on cleaning services and changed the hours and offerings of its food service, among other changes. At one point, there were conversations about whether coffee would continue to be available in offices, according to one staff member.

An analysis by Bloomberg Business Week shows VLS had the third-highest acceptance rate in 2012, with 83 percent of applicants being admitted. [In past years, the rate has typically fallen between 60 percent and 75 percent.] That prompted The Careerist, a law job blog, to place it in the unflattering category of “law schools where your pet poodle can probably get in.”

But VLS’s acceptance rate isn’t as munificent as it may seem, according to Mihaly. The school attracts a certain type of student, Mihaly says — people more concerned with changing the world than making money — and those who don’t fit that mold generally don’t apply.

Update:  After some correspondence with Peter Glenshaw, Director of Communications at Vermont Law School, I’ve learned that the precise numbers involved are:

(1) Four tenure/tenure-track faculty have gone from full to part-time. Two tenured/tenure track faculty left the school, and their positions were eliminated. Together this represents a 21.4% reduction in the number of full-time tenure track faculty.

(2) Four contract faculty have gone from full to part-time. This represents 13% of the contract faculty. Thus the number of full-time positions on the teaching faculty (TT and contract) has been reduced by 17.2%.

Mr. Glenshaw wishes to emphasize that the eight faculty members who have gone from full-time to part-time status will, in his words, “continue to teach or work at VLS in the coming years. We are thrilled that every faculty member who participated in this voluntary program will remain involved in our community as teachers and educators, and we look forward to their contributions in the coming years.”

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Eh, not that impressive an article. I went to VLS (class of 2007) and have a bit of a firsthand perspective. While the class enrollment did shoot up to 200 for a single year (big yield), average class size in the last decade or so was probably pretty close to 160. So while class size is declining, it's not by that much overall. And as for the reductions in tenure-track positions, I say GREAT. Every school in the country has too many tenured professors...VLS is reducing the tenured professors AND not reducing the total number of faculty, and the quality stays consistent since the formerly-tenured faculty are all staying on? Good job, VLS.

Posted by: Bill M. | Jul 2, 2013 1:10:29 PM

I fully expect law schools across the country to face similar realities.

Posted by: HTA | Jun 29, 2013 4:07:08 PM

I'd also like to share some of the terrific work VLS is doing in land use and civil rights. Below are links to recent articles by VLS professors on two of the Supreme Court's decisions last week. The Echeverria article on the Koontz case was one of the most emailed articles in the NY Times last week, and the Gardina article in the Huffington Post also received significant attention. These are just two examples of the caliber of professor that teaches at VLS!

Posted by: Karis North | Jun 29, 2013 7:34:19 AM

I'd like to clarify the numbers - VLS class size went UP last year, from 150 in Fall 2011 to 170 in Fall 2012. What's happening here is the volatility of the legal market and it is affecting every single law school out there.

I'm a 1995 JD and I've been practicing environmental law since I left VLS - I have a terrific fulfilling and lucrative career and the education I got at VLS was stellar. I'm a Cornell undergrad and I chose to attend VLS specifically because of its reputation in environmental law. I've been in mega firms and smaller firms, and there is no question my VLS education prepared me well for whatever came across my path.

It is a challenging time for the law world -- not just legal education. I commend Dean Mihaly, and the VLS administration, faculty and staff for taking the lead in making the hard choices to ensure the sustainability of VLS. They continue to be innovative, by adding programs like the Accelerated JD, which allows students to finish in 2 years, and reduces tuition cost and time out of the work force. The distance learning program is also bringing new students to VLS -- many of whom chose to take come portion of their degree on campus -- but allows them the flexibility of working and learning.

It is also my understanding that the faculty who have taken a change in status will be continuing to teach, and that taking a different status is likely a transition towards retirement for many of them. Taking a different professional status is a typical step towards retirement in the academic and business world.

Posted by: Karis North | Jun 29, 2013 7:30:32 AM