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Moving Law School May Not Change Nationwide Enrollment Decline or Recruit Rural Lawyers

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:


  1. Roger Elgersma 2017-08-08 10:07

    Moving that much faculty etc. is costly. When we pay lower than average teacher salaries would be a great time to jump to another state if you are going to go through the pain of moving anyway. Quality of education is absolutely not related to size of city. How many students come from USD as compared to coming from Sioux Falls schools? If they stay in same town is good draw for students but not huge. To make that expensive of a shift includes library resources that are used by other students as well. This is not worth the effort to rip a system apart when there is no real proof that any good will come. If you want to prove that Sioux Falls is greedy, just keep it up.

  2. Porter Lansing 2017-08-08 10:26

    Vermillion is in a location that could support a regional law school. Northwest Iowa, Northeast Nebraska and Southwest Minnesota and Southeastern South Dakota might produce higher student participation rates. Expand the base to include more liberal thinking areas. Things are often cheaper when paid for as a group.

  3. the lowly independent 2017-08-08 11:50

    Boo-hoo the law school has declining numbers, WELL GOOD, these numbers just show that young people are finally realizing that law school isn’t worth the money and time. I also find it odd that you can’t operate a law school with 150 kids paying $20,000 a year, thats an annual budget of 3 million dollars! What are the costs? There are no labs or equipment…. Some old books a few rooms thats it! So where is the money going?!?!? I think it is easy to see where.

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-08 13:09

    Good reminder about the library, Roger. Maybe in coming years a physical library will matter less than online records, but it seems there are plenty of court cases and other records that aren’t in electronic format yet, and moving them from Vermillion to Sioux Falls is an additional cost. Plus, I think there’s a lot to be said for keeping that law library at USD where all the undergraduates can access it, too. As the folks who testified yesterday mentioned, the law school gets some synergy from having undergrads exposed to the presence of that graduate program. Does any other state have a public university law school 60+ miles away from its parent university?

    To TLI’s comment, it would seem more costly to operate a law school as a standalone facility than to integrate it in the operations of a full university.

  5. Ryan 2017-08-08 13:49

    I am undecided on whether or not I think it is a good idea to move the law school, but I came in here to comment on Cory’s opinion of Vermillion. “Tranquil,” you say? I’m guessing you have visited the town, but have you ever lived there? It’s a $h!thole full of drunk college kids pretending to get educated and townies who go to bars to pick fights.

    As for the apparent main concern of the law school bleeding money it can’t replace, because I am a cynic I would guess there are a lot of over-paid folks who get a cut of the budget without doing anything helpful. If the high tuition and fees aren’t enough to balance the budget, trace the money and you’ll find excess that should be excised.

    Also, undergrads don’t use the law library. Most law students don’t even use the law library. It’s just a place for them to store desks.

  6. John Kennedy Claussen, Sr. 2017-08-08 14:51

    Does anyone remember when State Senator Roger McKellips, SD Democratic nominee for Governor in ’78, proposed closing the USD law school back in December of ’83 with legislation for the then pending session? If I remembered it right, he though that other law schools in the region could fill the bill and that our society had too many lawyers…. Now speed forward to 2018 and enrollment is declining and there is a need for lawyers in the rural areas especially….How times change, yet the immortal words of Shakespeare I am afraid still unfortunately dictate this profession, it legacy, and possibly its eventuality, when Shakespeare wrote in Henry the VI, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”….. ;-)

  7. Douglas WIken 2017-08-08 16:14

    My guess is that pay for law school profs would be significantly increased if in Sioux Falls. Back in the early days, Sioux Falls made a deal. They got the State Prison and other cities got the colleges and Universities. Now they want to re-neg on the deal.

    IN any case the city fathers and businesses in Vermillion could do more to make affordable housing and perhaps adjust their greed for student money just a bit and stop gauging on prices….asssuming if nothing has changed since I was there. Also the business community could provide some good scholarships considering the amount of money that law school brings to Vermilion and keeps there.

    Other departments of the U need to establish manufacturing and technical business that fits with the expertise of the profs there. Vermillion has tended not to compete on much of anything because of reliance on student spending there.

  8. Mr. Sol 2017-08-08 17:40

    I too have mixed feelings on moving the law school from Vermillion, but if it actually would help the law student in any way, I’m all for it.

  9. grudznick 2017-08-08 17:46

    Others had to put up with living in Vermillion. New kids going there should have to put up with it just like Lem Overpeck had to.

  10. John 2017-08-08 23:36

    It’s long past the time to move the law school, even the University, to a city that matters, from the now back-water that Vermilion allowed itself to become. It’s long past the time to adapt, migrate, or die.

    The University ought move to FSD or RAP. The law school ought to move to RAP. A rationale for moving the U to FSD is that FSD is the business center of SD, and the U touts itself as a business school. Yet, the state’s land grant university is east river (an extension of Minnesota?) so there’s a strong argument to move the University to the West River. Moving the University West River will invigorate training in the State’s 3 major economic engines: agriculture, tourism, and natural resources. The latter 2 are virtually ignored in the law school.

    Frankly, alternatively, close the law school. Students, like dental and veterinary students, can attend out-of-state then return.

  11. grudznick 2017-08-09 00:31

    Mr. John has valid points. Despite degrees from the U of SD, many people probably feel that Vermilion has failed us. I think it would be swell to move it to Rapid City. At least the law school could move to Rapid City, and then the fellows down at the Brass Rail could shape up a bit when confronted with some properly dressed and behaving young men.

    I think Mr. John may have broached the subject that, even since Kathy left, those spineless Regents are afraid to broach. Broach it, I say, as does Mr. John.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-09 07:37

    Intelligent points, Douglas. Would the Regents automatically raise those profs pay just to meet cost of living? If they have money to raise pay for those 20 profs, could they use that money even more effectively to reduce tuition for 120 law students?

    I recognize the university/state pen argument. How long are the people of Sioux Falls bound by what, 135 years ago, seemed like a good deal to Richard Pettigrew, based on a faulty prediction of population trends?

    While I acknowledge the economic development side of this question, are we going to get into a situation where towns will have to get into a scholarship bidding war the same way states get into a subsidy bidding war? In your suggestion that the U develop ecdev programs in other sectors, I can see a contradiction: perhaps Vermillion’s problem is that it has relied too much on student spending. Perhaps the state should leave the law school and other university investments in place and, instead of further investing in scholarships, Vermillion should invest any additional ecdev dollars available in other non-student-dependent sectors, in the kinds of businesses that won’t develop on their own thanks to the inputs of the university.

  13. Douglas Wiken 2017-08-09 11:05

    If any universities are moved, they should be moved to dirt cheap ground in the center of the state near the interstate. Any movement of law school or anything else will just be another ripoff of taxpayers aimed at making some land speculator richer.

    It might have made sense to close and move colleges and universities 40 or 50 years ago before hundreds of millions had been spent on facilities at existing locations.

    It still makes sense to have one university president in South Dakota with something like vice-presidents on the actual campuses. The current system is rife with redundant personnel.

  14. Scott906 2017-08-09 12:47

    Higher education like so much in South Dakota suffers from the state trying to do too much with to little, simply trying to do it on the cheap. We should learn to do fewer things better. If the law school needs to be financially self-sufficient the numbers indicate it should simply be closed. Moving it just to see what happens is an absurd policy position. It should stay in Vermillion but take a careful look at its mission. Why are we educating lawyers in SD today? What’s the market? The school needs to stake out one or two specialty areas. By the way, what’s this Task Force study costing?

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-10 07:19

    One university president? The projected law school deficit for 2020 is $658K. If we got rid of just the six university presidents and put the Regents executive director in charge (with a pay raise of, say $200K), we’d save $1.5M.

    “Don’t just do something; stand there!” Scott is right—far from absurd, that’s the classical conservative position, the quite rational high school policy debate approach of sticking with the status quo unless someone can prove that a change will do us more good than harm.

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-10 07:22

    John, any chance I could persuade you that having a university in a nice “backwater” town i actually good for students? Fewer distractions, more time studying?

  17. Brett 2017-08-10 16:22

    I’m undecided on this issue and think there are at least somewhat plausible arguments on either side. However, I have little sympathy for the pleas of business people who are sad about the prospect of losing their lunch customers, etc.

    While any kind of institution like a law school naturally brings some economic benefits to wherever it is located, that is certainly not its primary reason for existing. If the law school will be advantaged by moving to Sioux Falls, it should move. (This is a big if, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say it is true.)

    The law school should do what it can to make itself the most successful version of a law school it can possibly be. It’s not an economic development program for Vermillion and business owners will have to adapt to the market. Just because Vermillion has benefited from the economic activity associated with the school in the past does not mean it has the right to claim these benefits indefinitely into the future, at the expense of the law school itself.

  18. Scott906 2017-08-10 17:18

    Of course, the local economic argument is true about USD being in Vermillion at all, or any other institution in any town, a point about which the current administration seems unconcerned as they seem to want more and more of the school up I-29 in Sioux Falls – not just the med school and law school but now also the new research center. What’s next?

  19. Darin Larson 2017-08-10 20:57

    I’m skeptical of the idea that the law school will have more students to support it if it moves to Sioux Falls. I doubt that the one thing that is keeping more students from enrolling at the USD law school is its location in Vermillion rather than Sioux Falls. There is some synergy in having the law school on the same campus as USD and it draws some students from its co-existence with USD and especially the business school. For example, some law students get a joint JD/MBA in three years. There is also existing infrastructure in Vermillion that would be costly to duplicate in Sioux Falls.

    If law school was a part-time gig and students could take classes at night and on weekends, moving the law school to Sioux Falls could increase enrollment by drawing in more non-traditional and/or part-time students. Since law school requires full time attendance, a move to Sioux Falls is not going to attract a new segment of students that would outweigh the costs of the move. Numerous USD law students over the years have lived in Sioux Falls and commuted to Vermillion for law school. If living in Sioux Falls rates highly on a students set of priorities, they can already live in Sioux Falls and go to law school at the same time.

  20. leslie 2017-08-10 21:01

    love it! university shouldn’t be in vermillion, capitol shouldn’t be in pierre, and pigs shouldn’t be in cafo’s next to town, but other than that, the right runs SD. (sigh) oh, and rally shouldn’t be at Bear Butte. too bad we don’t have a jared, son of god,”jesus” Kushner in SD

  21. leslie 2017-08-10 21:07

    “Any movement of law school or anything else will just be another ripoff of taxpayers aimed at making some land speculator richer.” Hey Doug, back off on those regents

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-10 22:15

    I agree with Brett that the success of the law school is the overriding goal, completely outweighing economic development issues. If moving the law school boosts enrollment and provides more lawyers to meet South Dakota needs, and if the advantages cannot be replicated in the existing facility, then Aff plan wins—i.e., hello, Sioux Falls; good luck, Vermillion, diversifying your economy.

    If there is no evidence that moving will boost the school itself, then that should be enough reason not to vote for plan. However, I’m willing to add the argument that the local economic benefits of a functional, not failing law school in Vermillion are worth something, say, 10 points. Increased enrollment does not immediately or absolutely outweigh those economic benefits (including the added savings of not renting/building new facilities in Sioux Falls). Task force, if you’ll just come up with an equation, this will be a much easier decision to make!

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