Portland Press Herald, Maine’s Only Law School Enters a Period of Transition:
Abdirahman was studying political science at the University of Southern Maine when he got an email from the dean of the nearby law school. Danielle Conway remembered him from a campus event earlier that year, and she wanted him to apply for a new summer program designed to promote diversity in the legal profession. Three years later, the 25-year-old has completed his second year at the University of Maine School of Law and is interning at a Portland law firm this summer.
“It really pushed me to go to law school,” said Abdirahman, who was born in Somalia and came to the United States as a child.
That program is one of several that Conway has created and championed since 2015. But she leaves next month for another deanship in Pennsylvania, and her signature initiatives are in financial jeopardy as Maine’s only law school enters a period of transition.
A committee is studying the school’s direction as part of the public university system in Maine, and its recommendations will shape the search for the next dean. That person will inherit the funding battle with system leaders that Conway said factored into her decision to leave.
She said she believes those leaders have been reluctant to give more money to the law school for multiple reasons, including its small size in comparison with the rest of the system and her own efforts to get grant funding to pay for new programs. But she also said she believes implicit bias of sexism and racism made them less receptive to her message.
“You want someone to say, I had a phenomenal experience there, I learned a lot and it’s going to help me in my next leadership challenge,” Conway said of her interactions with those leaders. “I won’t be able to say that, and I’m disappointed that that’s the narrative I carry with me from this experience.”
The University of Southern Maine controls the amount of state money that goes to the law school. In a written statement, President Glenn Cummings said the university was working to get out of a $15 million budget hole while Conway was requesting money for new professors and programs.
“We are committed to identifying and overcoming implicit bias wherever it exists, but it has been our fiscal realities and cost-of-education priorities that have driven allocation decisions for the law school and USM,” Cummings said.
Based in Portland, the law school has an enrollment of fewer than 250 students and a full-time faculty of roughly 20.
Nationally, fewer students are applying to law school. From 2011 to 2018, the number of applications in Maine dropped from 988 to 574 – a 40 percent decrease. To stay competitive, the law school has increased the amount of money it spends on grants and scholarships.
In 2011, the school reported only a third of the student body got assistance on tuition, and that money almost always covered less than half of tuition. In 2018, two-thirds of students received financial aid from the school, and a quarter of them got half to full tuition. Tuition for this year is $22,290 for Maine residents and $33,360 for non-residents.
As a result, the law school has been in the red for several years, despite cuts to other spending. The university system and USM both tapped reserve accounts to cover that deficit; for the current year, that transfer is projected to be nearly $900,000. The law school’s spending for the current year is $6.6 million.
For years, however, the state allocation for the law school has remained stagnant at about $850,000. Next year, the USM president has pledged to increase that amount by 50 percent. The governor’s proposed budget includes nearly $200 million for the entire university system in fiscal year 2020, and the University of Southern Maine would get $48 million of that money. The law school’s new allocation would be nearly $1.3 million.
“The allocation agreement negotiated between prior leaders at USM and Maine Law is no longer sufficient. … The additional $425,000 in annual support for Maine Law is a starting point with additional conversations to come after the Board receives its recommendations from the special committee on the future direction of the law school,” Cummings said in a written statement.
Conway said that money is not sufficient, and she has still been asked to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from the budget.
“I think this school and the new dean deserve an upfront investment so that these programs that I’ve started can actually turn into institutional programs that continue to attract quality students,” she said. ...
As she leaves for Penn State’s Dickinson Law, Conway said she would advise the next dean to trust his or her colleagues at the law school. “And be very, very careful of the people in your leadership chain of command,” she said.