In an eight to five vote, Tennessee’s Higher Education Commission denied Middle Tennessee State University’s proposal to transfer Indiana-based Valparaiso Law School to its Murfreesboro campus.
The MTSU board voted unanimously to approve the proposal last week. The school’s provost Mark Brynes argued the move is necessary for Middle Tennessee. While there are already three other law schools, they are all private, he said, and the state needs a public option.
Technically, Valparaiso was going to transfer its American Bar Association accredited J.D. program and curriculum to MTSU as a gift. The institution announced last fall that it would no longer admit new students after only 29 enrolled. It began looking for merger options.
But Mike Krause, executive director of THEC, says the commission is required to approve or disapprove of all proposals for new degree programs at public institutions. And for this particular case, they even hired an outside consultant to conduct a feasibility study on the transfer.
“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,” Krause wrote in an email.
“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.”
The commission looked at these criteria, among others, in making the decision: Alignment with state master plan and institutional mission, sustainable demand, program costs and revenue and no unnecessary duplication. The commission also solicited comments from expert legal reviewers.
Based on comments and these criteria, the commission denied MTSU’s proposal. The biggest critics of the transfer came from lawyers and law schools in Memphis and Knoxville, where the state’s only other public law schools are located.
Comments generally regarded concerns of a watered down law school market for the state, since Nashville is already home to three law schools — Belmont University, Vanderbilt University and Nashville School of Law. Another school in the city, many said, would take away from other schools’ ability to compete, even if it’s a public option.
And with higher education excellence often tied to career attainment outcomes, it would also saturate an already dense legal labor market, they said. MTSU’s transfer of a law school would make it even more difficult for law school graduates to find work.
“As you may know, there are currently six law schools in Tennessee [...] All this new law school will do is insert more law school graduates into an already crowded job market,” wrote Everett L. Hixson III, partner of law firm Evans Harrison Hackett.
Others brought up Valparaiso’s quality.
“Valparaiso is not the type of education that we want to offer in Tennessee, and that school has recently been censured by the American Bar Association for admitting students who did not have a reasonable likelihood of graduating…” wrote Lisa Ramsay Cole, president of law firm Lewis Thomason.
Tennessee State University president Glenda Glover spoke in favor of the proposal, saying a public law school option would offer greater opportunity for the state’s low-income, underserved students.
“Among the greatest obstacles to increasing the number of Black lawyers is lack of access to and the cost of attending law school,” she wrote. “Without a public law school in the Nashville area our graduates are faced with the choice of relocating to another city or state [...] shouldering significant debt to attend a private law school…”
MTSU president Sidney A. McPhee says he regrets the vote and that it's a loss for the region.
“We are sorry that our citizens will be deprived of the opportunities that this college of law would have provided because of concerns about competition by the state’s two existing public law schools,” he wrote.
WPLN reached out to McPhee for comment on the institution’s next steps following the vote, but he declined to provide further comment.