The University of South Dakota’s Law School Relocation Task Force held its inaugural meeting yesterday in Vermillion to talk about whether the state should move its only law school from the USD campus to Sioux Falls.
David Lias provides the most thorough text coverage with detailed reports on statements from USD President Jim Abbott, law school dean Tom Geu, and USD CFO Sheila Gestring and strong opposition to the move from Vermillion law graduates and boosters.
CFO Gestring says declining enrollment will hurt the law school’s budget:
Gestring shared pro forma financial data with the task force. Her numbers are based on a total law school enrollment of 182, 156 and 155 law students at USD in fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively.
“What we’ve used here is roughly 50 students per class,” she said.
Her calculations, when comparing the law school’s revenue to expenses those three years, show its budget to be in the red by nearly $186,000 in FY2018. In FY2019, that deficit increases to $655,000. By FY2020, the law school budget is expected to be nearly $658,000 in the red. Between FY 18 and FY19, Gestring calculates the law school could see a decrease in tuition of approximately $300,000.
“Tuition and fees make more than half of the operating budget of the law school,” she said [David Lias, “The Task at Hand: Law School Task Force Convenes at USD,” Yankton Press & Dakotan, 2017.08.07].
Senator, former judge, USD law graduate, and Vermillion resident Arthur Rusch says declining enrollment transcends location and offers an uncomfortable reminder that a past Regental effort to boost enrollment by moving classrooms to Sioux Falls failed:
“…the decline in enrollment is a nationwide problem; it’s not a Vermillion problem, so why would we think that moving the location of the law school would necessarily be a solution?” he asked. “My understanding from the people that I’ve talked to is that the decline in law school enrollment nationwide is because there are other jobs available.
“Is there any real guarantee that moving the law school to Sioux Falls would increase the enrollment?” Rusch asked. “Recent publicity has shown that The University Center’s enrollment in Sioux Falls is half of what they anticipated, so would necessarily moving the law school solve that problem?” [David Lias, “Residents: Keep Law School in Vermillion,” Yankton Press & Dakotan, 2017.08.07].
USD law graduate and Vermillion City Council president Kelsey Collier-Wise says moving the law school to our biggest city won’t help South Dakota meet its most pressing legal workforce need, the lack of attorneys in our smaller towns:
“The purpose of the law school and why it is supported by South Dakota taxpayers is to make sure that everyone in our state has access to vital legal services,” she said. “Sioux Falls and Rapid City are not experiencing a shortage of attorneys that we are seeing in the rest of the state … I can’t imagine a potential student who wouldn’t even spend three years in Vermillion, which is too urban to qualify for Project Rural Practice, would somehow end up in Lemmon or Bison or one of the other communities that really needs legal services” [Lias, “Residents…,” 2017.08.07].
Rusch, Collier-Wise, and the other Vermillion residents who spoke yesterday frame a healthy conservative policy-debate perspective: unless the proponents of change can prove that moving from the USD campus in tranquil Vermillion to bustling Sioux Falls will solve our most significant problems, that other nationwide factors wouldn’t drown out any meager enrollment uptick from such a costly move, and that the harms to USD as an institution and the Vermillion economy wouldn’t outweigh the minor benefits of giving Sioux Falls one more advantage (120 students and 20 professors matter a lot more in a town of 11,000 than a city of 175,000), we should stick with the status quo.
USD Coyote News provides full video of the first meeting: