After the Tennessee Commission of Higher Education rejected the transfer plans between Valparaiso Law School and Middle Tennessee State University, the northwest Indiana institution had no other options.
Valparaiso University made the announcement Tuesday that it would cease operations at the law school after the current second-year students have completed their J.D. degrees in 2020. Although the decision to close may not have surprised many, especially since the university had been upfront about the troubles the legal education program was having, it was still an emotional blow.
“It’s a sad day,” said Valparaiso University president Mark Heckler. “It’s a very sad day.”
The university’s board of trustees made the decision Oct. 26 and university officials told the faculty and staff and students Oct. 29. Currently the school has about 80 third-year students and 17 second-year students.
The faculty and staff are continuing to work under the severance and stay agreements they signed with the university last year. They have incentives to stay and, if they do, their benefits will keep accruing, Heckler said.
According to Heckler, the university will meet again Thursday with the 2L students as it formulates the details of the law school’s teach-out plan. Specifically, Valparaiso wants to find out how many intend to transfer to another institution to complete their education.
The university may decide, based on the feedback from the students, to either continue classes at the law school or develop a “visiting strategy.” Under the visiting scheme, the current 2L students would attend their final year at a different law school, and those credits would be transfer back to Valparaiso, which would ultimately award the J.D. degree.
Heckler said Valparaiso wants to have a plan in place by Thanksgiving so students wanting to transfer will be able to switch schools as soon as the upcoming spring semester.
“I’m proud of the … students,” Heckler said. “They’re going to graduate and be great lawyers. We want them to be proud of their law school. What we were trying to do in this place is very special.”
Valparaiso Law School is now among a handful of law schools that since 2017 have either closed or announced their intentions to close. But Valparaiso’s announcement, coming after Indiana Tech Law School shuttered in June 2017, makes Indiana the only state in the country that has seen two of its law school cease operations.
Whittier Law School in California, Arizona Summit Law School and Savannah Law School have all announced plans to close. Charlotte School of Law, whose dean was former Valparaiso Law School dean Jay Conison, closed in August 2017 after the U.S. Department of Education quit providing student loans.
Also, John Marshall Law School, a private institution in Chicago, is merging with University of Illinois at Chicago after the university’s trustees approved the proposal in July 2018.
In November 2017, Valparaiso University announced it was seeking an alternative to keep the law school in operation. Heckler said the university pursued merger, collaboration and relocation options from various parties across the United States. Also, it had conversations with other universities in Indiana that do not have law schools.
Heckler declined to name the other institutions that expressed interest but said all the possibilities were pursued until the end.
However, Middle Tennessee State University turned out to be the best alternative. The public university in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Heckler said, was an enthusiastic partner, had a great location, made a commitment of resources and had a schedule that matched Valparaiso’s.
“It was really a perfect alignment of all those things,” Heckler said.
Valparaiso and MTSU worked out an agreement where the law school faculty and library holdings would be transferred to Tennessee. In exchange, MTSU would pay Valparaiso $2 million for costs and expenses.
The current students in Indiana would remain and complete their degrees, while MTSU would enroll its first class in the fall of 2019. For that first-year class, Valparaiso would be in charge of marketing MTSU’s new law school and recruiting the students.
Heckler said MTSU president Sidney McPhee was confident the higher education commission would approve the merger plan at its meeting Oct. 15. However, at 5 p.m. Oct. 12, the commission released a study from Aslanian Market Research/Eddy Holdings LLC (doing business as EducationDynamics) which found the Volunteer state did not need a seventh law school.
In the Murfreesboro Post, McPhee rebuked the consultants’ findings. He said the report is “a hatchet job” and filled with “inaccuracies, unsubstantiated speculation, conjecture and other significant errors.”
Heckler said the report changed the tone of the hearing to one where MTSU was on the defensive. Ultimately, the commission voted against the transfer 8-to-5.
“It was an unexpected and very bitter disappointment for everybody involved,” Heckler said.
Now, Valparaiso University is preparing a teach-out plan to present to the law school accrediting agency, the American Bar Association.
“Our goal is to do this as quickly as we possibly can,” Heckler said.