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In the wake of state officials rejecting a free law school for MTSU, many key players are not speaking, but some outside supporters are pointing fingers at rival schools, and the university’s leader told commissioners a report bashing the deal was a “hatchet job.”

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, a body that oversees the state’s public universities and colleges, stunned many on Oct. 15 when its commissioners voted 8-5 against Middle Tennessee State University accepting the free gift of Valparaiso University’s law school. The northwest Indiana university had placed MTSU at the top of a short list of institutions to receive its law school at no cost.

Legislative action?

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron, a former state senator, said he is checking with local legislators about the possibility of them filing a bill in January to overrule THEC. If the measure passes, it would happen in the spring. The question is whether Valparaiso would wait that long.

“Or it may not pass,” said Ketron, an MTSU alumnus. “They may play politics.”

Another factor is the Nov. 6 elections and changes in the makeup of the Tennessee General Assembly, he said.

Ketron, who attended the THEC meeting, called its decision a “strictly political vote” and “hack job.” He said the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville are against anything happening in Middle Tennessee.

Administrators at Valparaiso did not return calls seeking comment.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee told the Murfreesboro Post, “Certainly, I think the addition of a law school in Middle Tennessee would serve a growing population in the Middle Tennessee area and surrounding areas like Kentucky and Alabama.”

When asked if there could still be a law school in MTSU’s future, he said the university would move on.

“Well, obviously THEC has the statutory responsibility for approving programs, and that decision has been made, so we’ll move on. There are other initiatives we’re working on

Stephen B. Smith, chairman of MTSU’s board of directors, took a different stance on the future of a law school. While the vote was a setback, there will be other opportunities to obtain a law school, he said.

“We’re not going to stop,” he said. “If the board and current faculty leadership believe that a law school is going to be helpful for our school, then we’re going to pursue one. We’ll just think of a better idea. Law schools are out there by the dozen.”

THEC released a statement from Executive Director Mike Krause which said: “As the state’s higher education coordinating board, the responsibility for weighing both the benefits and challenges of program proposals is at the core of THEC’s mission. Today’s decision reflected a thoughtful analysis and dialogue that was inclusive of all perspectives. We are grateful to Dr. McPhee and his board for their collaboration throughout the process.”

Two MTSU backers have spoken out against the process.

It would have taken some time for the law school to get up and running, but eventually it would have made a huge difference for the region, said Don Witherspoon, former president of the MTSU Alumni Association. Now, residents will have to continue to leave to attend a public law school.

“I really think what happened here is regional interests have overshadowed public education interests,” he said. “Tennessee Higher Education Commission, by its definition, should be about education. In this case, I think they’re more about protecting their own interests and protecting the regional interests of those schools in the east and in the southwest.”

Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland called THEC’s decision disappointing and blamed the state’s two public law schools for the rejection of a $4 million gift that should have been a “no-brainer.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” McFarland said. “The University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis were absolutely against MTSU acquiring a law school.”

McPhee blasts report

McPhee delivered an impassioned plea for the deal at the THEC meeting. He angrily denounced a report by Aslanian Market Research, which THEC commissioned, on the feasibility of the law school’s move and criticized the quality of Valparaiso’s program.

An official with Aslanian did not return a call seeking comment.

McPhee rattled off a list of grievances that began with MTSU receiving the report very late on Friday evening the weekend before the meeting.

The report “is replete … with inaccuracies, unsubstantiated speculation, conjecture and other significant errors,” he said. “I had not originally planned to discuss the consultant’s report this morning, but after reading it this weekend, I must do so since it fails miserably to present a balanced and fair assessment of our proposal.”

The report says MTSU would house the state’s seventh law school, but that does not give proper context, McPhee said. There are only two public law schools – at the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“The question is if Middle Tennessee needs its first accredited public law school,” he said. He also said the report is a “prejudged statement with every possible reason this gift will not work. There isn’t a single positive thing in this study about MTSU, a great institution, an institution that provides this community every year 5,000 graduates.”

McPhee listed other issues, which he called failures: incomplete and inappropriate recommendations; outdated statistics; misinterpretation of existing research; selecting under-representative samples of interviewees; not challenging statements by anonymous interviewees; not accounting for differences between public and private law schools; using speculative language; failing to recognize Middle Tennessee has student demands and opportunities different from the rest of the state; and ignoring that some adults in  the region cannot move to attend a public law school.

The report was written with the perspective of seeing potential threats to the state’s existing law schools and the income of existing lawyers, he said.

‘Cartel-like view’

“We reject the cartel-like view that the existing two public law schools — you’re responsible for two, not seven — this state has two public law schools that you have responsibility for,” McPhee told the commissioners.

Middle Tennessee is the seventh fastest growing metro region in the nation and will add one million residents in the coming decade, McPhee said. There is no public law school from Memphis to Louisville, Ky., to Knoxville to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Middle Tennessee residents are located farther from a public law school than residents of any other metro area in the 50 states, and this is the most diverse part of Tennessee where an affordable program would serve economically disadvantaged people.

The consultant failed to say that last year, Vanderbilt University’s law school admitted only six graduates from Tennessee, and four of those were Vanderbilt graduates, he said. Vanderbilt’s law school costs more than $85,000 per year, while Belmont University costs more than $70,000. Nashville School of Law is not accredited by the American Bar Association, he said.

“You have the opportunity to receive a fully accredited operational law school with a 139-year history, McPhee said. There would be a cost to putting off the decision of this “once-in-a-generation opportunity that may never come again to this state.”

MTSU has the money and the space to operate the law school, he said, despite what the consultant said.

“We’re no longer that small little middle (university) … we are a major comprehensive university,” he said, adding that MTSU is the second largest in the state.

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MORE INFO

THEC page linking to agenda materials: bit.ly/2AgJp4j

Link to video of the law school debate and vote: bit.ly/2S12Rc2

Noteworthy moments in the video feed:

0:04:06: Mike Krause, Executive Director, THEC

0:09:52: Dr. Jane Sadd Smalec, consultant on study that advocated against the deal

0:56:20: Smalec and Krause take questions

1:31:36: Stakeholders speak

2:01:25: Dr. Sidney A. McPhee addresses THEC

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