- An investigation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found the independent Vermont Law School violated shared governance standards with actions it took to close a projected budget deficit of up to $2.3 million, which included removing tenure from 14 of 19 tenured faculty members last spring.
- AAUP claims the school did not sufficiently involve faculty in discussions about its dire circumstances or its plan for a response. The school claimed faculty were informed and were asked to recommend solutions but produced nothing "viable."
- The move to strip tenure followed other restructuring efforts, including buyouts, salary reductions and freezes, the elimination of faculty and staff positions, and a reduction in benefits, the report noted. The school also sought to raise enrollment, which required "significant expenditure of reserves" on marketing, program development, fundraising and restructuring a $15 million federal loan.
The backdrop to the situation in Vermont is declining enrollment at U.S. law schools. Between the fall of 2013 and the fall of 2018, the number of students in Juris Doctor programs fell 13%, according to the American Bar Association.
To cope, law schools have turned to tuition discounting, according to AAUP's report, which said the practice "turned the world of law school admissions upside down" by decreasing the profitability of legal programs and causing the schools to rely more on their universities for support.
Because Vermont Law School is unaffiliated with a larger institution, it faces "different and in some instances even greater challenges" through more direct accountability to governing boards, alumni, students, staff and the public, the report explained.
The school's new enrollment fell 45% between 2009 and 2013, reported E&E News, though it has risen since and last year enrolled around 630 full-time students. Additionally, its specialty in environmental law means its "service-oriented" graduates don't often enter jobs that pay enough to fund big donations to the endowment, according to AAUP.
The association's investigation began last November in response to concerns raised by several faculty members that the law school was not seriously considering their comments on the proposed changes, VT Digger reported.
The school contends faculty were engaged throughout the process at regular and open meetings as well as special convenings. "The administration cannot be faulted because some faculty failed to engage in governance," Thomas McHenry, the school's president and dean, wrote in the university's response to the investigation.
The AAUP report said faculty were given options for continuing their work at the school, including short-term appointments "with reduced teaching and service responsibilities" that also required them to give up their faculty voting and age-discrimination rights and agree to nondisclosure and nondisparagement provisions. Other options included termination with variations in severance.
"Put inelegantly," the report explained, the school "laid off a majority of its most expensive faculty members and then outsourced the work they did to a much cheaper contingent labor force, with no intention, it seems, of looking back."
The report said the school had, at the time of writing, 37 full-time faculty members, nine regular part-time faculty members and 71 adjunct faculty members, who serve part- and full-time.
AAUP could vote to sanction the school at its meeting next month, according to VT Digger.