Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines
Five months ago, MTSU President Sidney McPhee signed a non-binding letter of intent to transfer the Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana to Murfreesboro. The proposed new MTSU School of Law would become the region’s first public law school.
News of the possible move was reported by the press in Indiana and Murfreesboro in late June with few details offered. The news said the two universities were still exploring the possibility of moving the law school to MTSU.
Since then, talks between the private Lutheran university of about 4,000 students and MTSU, a public institution with about 23,000 students, have continued to progress, McPhee said in an interview with Sidelines.
McPhee is adamant that the plan will be good for Murfreesboro and the greater area.
However, in the midst of a several-year-long decline in law school graduation rates and job security, can the school survive if MTSU does complete the transfer process? National studies show that law school graduating classes have grown smaller and that the number of jobs for graduates throughout the U.S. has remained stagnant or gone down.
McPhee, however, believes MTSU is situated in an area of need for legal education.
“The question of a need in this area is one that is a primary focus,” McPhee said. “The whole Middle Tennessee area doesn’t have a single public, accredited law school.”
It’s true that local students interested in pursuing legal education only have private schools as choices, and they’re all in Nashville: Vanderbilt, Belmont and the Nashville School of Law. The majority of private choices have higher tuitions if compared to a public law school in the state. For example, the University of Tennessee College of Law’s average 2018-19 tuition comes to $19,674, while Vanderbilt’s 2018-19 tuition is $56,980 and Belmont’s is $43,430. The Nashville School of Law is more affordable at about $7,060 for a student’s first year and $34,180 for the total cost of a law degree, but the school is not accredited by the American Bar Association, meaning that graduates must request special permission to practice in other states.
MTSU and Valparaiso have already decided on a few significant factors, McPhee said.
Under the proposed transfer, current “key” Valparaiso faculty, administrators and staff will join MTSU, and Valparaiso’s existing law library will be relocated to MTSU. McPhee also noted the accreditation by the American Bar Association will continue during and after the transfer to MTSU.
McPhee clarified that the transfer is not a purchase or a merger. It would be more akin to a “gift.” The law school would be housed at MTSU and would be treated as any other college within the university.
According to the university president, MTSU is considering housing the school in the Miller Education Center on Bell Street, which was opened in 2016 and contains the Jennings A. Jones College of Business Center for Executive Education, the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services and more.
The law school at Valparaiso was founded in 1879 as a part of Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. In 1929, the school was accredited by the American Bar Association, and it was admitted to the Association of American Law Schools in 1930.
In more recent years, however, the school has faced a host of significant setbacks.
In November 2016, Valparaiso Law School was publicly censured by the ABA after reportedly not meeting accreditation requirements regarding admission policies. Due to continually low enrollment, the school dropped admission standards every year.
Valparaiso’s 2010 law class entered with an average score of 150 on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and a 3.31 GPA. By 2015, the average GPA fell to 2.93, and the average LSAT fell to 145.
Furthermore, only 130 students enrolled in 2015, which was 44 less than the previous year. By November 2017, the censure was lifted, but the school’s problems persisted. Class sizes had significantly decreased, and faculty buyouts were offered. The law school hired Ogilvy Public Relations in March 2017 to help it navigate through the downturn. In March 2018, the school’s dean, Andrea Lyon, announced her resignation.
McPhee said an MTSU School of Law would craft its own standards, hoping to avoid the problems that Valparaiso faced.
“MTSU will create and establish standards that meet ABA requirements and prepare students to take the placement exams and get jobs,” McPhee said. “Keep in mind, Valparaiso for years was competing with