McHenry shares Board of Trustees’ strategic planning discussions, including idea of potential program relocation

By: Lorentz Hansen, Copy Editor

During the Student Bar Association (SBA) meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 3, VLS Dean and President Thomas McHenry shared strategic planning updates from his most recent meeting with the school’s Board of Trustees.

The VLS Board of Trustees began developing strategic planning initiatives in 2011, when the school began to face financial difficulties due to declining enrollment and a rising discount rate, McHenry said. A discount rate is the percentage by which the school reduces accepted students’ tuition to encourage them to enroll. McHenry noted that the average discount rate among VLS students is above 50%, which means the school only actually receives, on average, about 50 cents from students for every tuition dollar.

In August of last year, the Board approved a set of measures to increase investment in VLS’s online master’s programs, which have seen increased enrollment this year, McHenry said. The Board also took steps to investigate the root of a decline in VLS graduates’ first-time bar-passage rate last year. Among other steps, the administration decided last year to tighten admission standards in the hopes of improving graduates’ bar-passage rate. Tightened standards, however, have resulted in a loss of revenue, according to McHenry. The last three entering J.D. classes have reduced in size from 191 students, to 154, to 130 last fall. Total enrollment of residential Master’s and LLM students has stayed relatively constant at approximately 40-50 new students each year.

Given the financial burdens that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, decreased enrollment, and rising discount rates, the school continues to face financial challenges.

At the most recent Board meeting, on Oct. 23-24, the Board unanimously adopted two resolutions: to generally move ahead with strategic planning initiatives, and to look into possible location changes for all or parts of the school.

McHenry noted that, though the school’s J.D. program accounts for approximately 75% of the school’s revenue, J.D. enrollment nationwide has not significantly increased recently and is not expected to in the coming years. The school therefore sees an opportunity for growth in focusing on increasing Master’s enrollment.

McHenry shared that the Board is looking at the possibility of focusing more courses and resources on climate issues, updating the environmental curriculum, and potentially restructuring the relationship between the J.D. and Master’s programs.

“Just to reassure you, there is no plan to make any significant cuts or reductions to the existing academic programs, but it’s certainly possible that we will be reshaping and refining the academic program as we move along, as schools do all the time anyway. So, we’re very excited about that and also that we have a lot of faculty and staff engagement in that,” McHenry said.

He continued, “so basically, the words of the resolution were that we would approve the recommendations of the strategic planning committee and move ahead to implement them. We’re calling these strategic initiatives at this point because they haven’t developed into a fully formed plan because we need to have the market research to see which elements of these initiatives we want to prioritize and move ahead with first.”

The second resolution “may be a little more scary to some of you,” McHenry said. The Board, he noted, is considering, as “an exploratory measure,” the possibility of relocating all or part of the school to Burlington. The intention would be to build a much closer relationship with the University of Vermont (UVM) to create more opportunities for students to pursue combined degrees and take classes in subject matters that VLS “simply can’t offer.” Restorative justice and environmental issues are increasingly interdisciplinary fields, and Burlington, noted McHenry, would give the school access to a larger group of potential adjunct faculty who currently work at courts, agencies, firms, and nonprofits in the city.

“Interestingly, you should know that UVM has some enthusiasm for welcoming VLS on or near their campus,” said McHenry. “This would not be a merger, this would not be UVM taking over VLS—that’s not been part of any of the discussions—but it would be a sort of complimentary relationship.”

“Many of you may know that we looked into this merger back in 2013, which was rejected at the time, and that’s not what we’re looking into here,” he clarified. “We’re just looking at something that would be good for both institutions. We’re doing some research on that, we’re looking at a whole bunch of factors…we should have some ideas on that by the February Board meeting.

At the moment there are no concrete plans. The Board has worked with several consultants over the past six months, and is looking at all possibilities. “If our Board Chair were with us he would say ‘everything is on the table.’ The school should cast a very broad net in making sure that we are providing the most sustainable future for our school.”

According to McHenry, the earliest that any kind of relocation would happen would be July of 2021; however, it could be much later than that, or the Board could decide it should not happen at all. “But I think the students deserve to know that conversations are taking place about it and we’re looking into feasibility,” he said. We’re trying to figure out what’s the best school we can have—how do we provide the best experience and most opportunities to our students, educationally and professionally, and underlying this, how do we make sure that we are financially sustainable?”

The administration emphasized that nothing is decided yet, but that the school determined it needed to make adjustments since the pandemic has created some additional financial hurdles for the school.

Before leaving, McHenry encouraged students to send SBA President Heather Francis any questions regarding these strategic planning initiatives and reiterated that “no decisions have been made.”  

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