On Monday, Oct. 15, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission voted against MTSU’s proposed law school transfer, deciding that a new public law school was wrong for Middle Tennessee. MTSU President Sidney McPhee, however, disagrees.
The commission voted 8-5 to deny MTSU’s transfer of Indiana’s Valparaiso University Law School to Middle Tennessee, which would have established the only public, accredited law school in the Nashville area. The votes against the proposal primarily came from commissioners from Knoxville and Memphis, two Tennessee cities that house law schools that would have competed with the MTSU School of Law.
“I think when you look at how the votes fell, it was clearly a regional reflection of the commissioners and the areas that they came from,” McPhee told Sidelines. “The majority of those commissioners came from the east and west parts of the state, and the two law schools in the east and west part of the state are the ones who strongly objected …”
During the THEC meeting in which the vote occurred, a feasibility report, titled “Feasibility Study: A Seventh Law School in Tennessee,” from Aslanian Market Research was presented. The report made claims that the proposed MTSU School of Law would not positively affect Tennessee and presented findings based off statistics from the American Bar Association and other scholarly articles, more than 50 interviews with practitioners and school executives and data from Tennessee law schools.
Aslanian consultant Jane Sodd Smalec presented key findings from the report at the meeting. According to the “key findings” of the report presented at the meeting, increased competition from MTSU’s law school would raise the cost of recruiting for all law schools in the state and would, at the same time, not create any additional value. Smalec also said that increased competition for “fixed” opportunities would challenge students, especially those in the bottom of their class. She went on to say that there is roughly a balance between the number of opportunities for current law students and the amount of graduates from current law schools. Therefore, she said, the MTSU School of Law would not create new opportunities but would increase competition for opportunities that are available. Smalec then claimed that a new law school would not improve access to legal service for the underserved and that MTSU would need to re-allocate more money than proposed in its Letter of Notification to bring the school to Murfreesboro. Finally, the last key finding stated that Valparaiso does not have a “good reputation.”
Therefore, Aslanian’s recommendation to the commission was as follows: “We argue that a new public law school in Middle Tennessee should not be approved by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.”
McPhee told Sidelines that the report was both biased and filled with errors.
“When you look at the comments I made in my presentation, I made some very specific references to some serious errors and inaccuracies and misinterpretation that appeared in that report,” McPhee said.
During the THEC meeting on Oct. 15, McPhee made a point of stating that MTSU received the report “very late” Friday evening, three days before the vote.
McPhee said in the meeting that the report “failed miserably” in creating a “balanced and fair” assessment of the proposal. He said that the title of the feasibility report suggested the authors were attempting to answer the “wrong question.”
“The question at hand is really whether Middle Tennessee needs its first public, accredited law school, not if the state overall needs a seventh,” McPhee said in the meeting.
The university president then went on to say that he believed the report is biased and doesn’t say a “single positive thing” about MTSU. McPhee also listed what he saw as errors in the report: using outdated statistics, misinterpreting research, selecting a non-representative sample of interviewees and accepting the anonymous claims of interviews, failing to take into account the difference between public and private law schools, frequently using the words “may” or “could,” treating anecdotes as facts and a lack of acknowledgment that Middle Tennessee has different job opportunities and needs than the rest of the state.
He also said that the report understated the fact that the Nashville School of Law is non-accredited and said that he received no questions from the Aslanian consultant regarding the financing from the school, despite the report claiming that money would be a major obstacle in MTSU starting the law school.
“It is our opinion in reviewing the report that it was really not a feasibility study; it was clearly a very biased, not well-written report that just focused primarily on objections made by the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis,” McPhee told Sidelines.
Portions of MTSU’s law school feasibility report imply that numerous employment opportunities would be available to graduates of the MTSU School of Law, while Aslanian’s suggests otherwise.
In MTSU’s report, it says that the state of Tennessee estimates an increase in lawyers from 2017 to 2019 and 620 openings for law graduates per year. Specifically, MTSU’s report highlighted the job market for law students in the area. According to the report, Nashville has added 1,000 new legal positions over the past six years while the rest of Tennessee has remained flat.
Aslanian’s report claims that the job market in the Nashville area does not provide room for those who would graduate from the MTSU School of Law. It states, based on interviews with anonymous law practitioners in Tennessee, “There’s work in Nashville but only for ‘silk stocking graduates,’ not your Valpo graduates.”
The report also says, as mentioned above, that there is roughly a balance between current sizes of graduating classes at Tennessee law schools and the number of employment opportunities available.
“The new school will not increase the numbers of jobs available for graduates,” the report reads.”Again, there will be a redistribution of graduates placed. Lower placement rates or placement of more students in categories other than JD required will affect all schools’ USNWR ratings.”
MTSU senior Leah Jones was one of the students disappointed by THEC’s decision. Jones hopes to enroll in a law school after graduation.
“I had planned on applying to the MTSU law school had the transfer been approved, but now I’m back to looking at my other option,” Jones said. “I do not want to and can’t afford to move away. So I’ve been considering my local options, (and) they’re just extremely costly.”
Jones decided to take action and start a petition to THEC on Change.org, titled “Reconsider the MTSU law school transfer,” eight days ago. It now has almost 1,000 signatures.
“For many, including my friend and fellow MTSU student/aspiring attorney Garrett Jones, relocating is simply not an option,” Jones said. “So he is stuck with two choices: Either go into crippling debt if he gets into one of the local private schools or change his career path. Middle Tennessee is the seventh largest growing region in the nation, and I have no doubt that a law school at MTSU would be very successful.”
Jone said she is aware that the petition may not be noticed by THEC but that it does enough in simply bringing more attention to the issue.
“At the very least, I’ll be satisfied knowing that I brought awareness to the need for local affordable legal education and that so many people supported me in this matter,” Jones said.
McPhee said MTSU will not be exploring other options to bring a law school to Middle Tennessee at this time.
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