Members of the state Board of Higher Education shot down the proposed University of Massachusetts law school yesterday after months of forceful debate over the plan and intense scrutiny by state officials, who concluded that the school's financial plan was too fragile and that legal questions about its structure had not been answered.
The 8-to-3 vote against the state's first public law school followed an emotional two-hour meeting at Bunker Hill Community College, where supporters of the merger between unaccredited Southern New England School of Law and nearby UMass-Dartmouth cheered statements in favor of the project and bristled at opponents' arguments. Scattered hugs and tears followed the decision.
''When people tell the story of public higher education in the Commonwealth, a long story with some sad chapters, they will tell the story of what you did today," UMass-Dartmouth chancellor Jean MacCormack, a leader of the merger movement, told the board before the vote was taken.
Seen by UMass as a way to extend its reach while offering a less costly legal education, the public law school faced an uphill battle from the start. Private law schools opposed it, hiring specialists who predicted a long, expensive struggle to win accreditation from the American Bar Association. While legislators from southeastern Massachusetts rallied to support the project, calling it a rare opportunity for an overlooked region, Governor Mitt Romney opposed the plan behind the scenes and contacted board members to lobby against it, according to sources close to the board.
Before casting votes against the plan, several members of the Board of Higher Education, including chairman Stephen P. Tocco and vice chairman Aaron D. Spencer, said they support the concept of a public law school and hope that UMass will one day have such an asset. Only six states lack a public law school.
''There's every reason we should have a public law school, just as there are reasons to have a medical school and an art school," Spencer said. ''The real question is, is this the right school at the right time and the right proposal. I don't think it is."
University president Jack Wilson, who accused the board's staff last month of conspiring with the private law schools, said he was disappointed by the outcome but heartened by board members' support for the concept. ''It says to me that we're trying to do the right thing, but we haven't made the case yet," Wilson said.
James J. Karam, chairman of the UMass board of trustees, called the vote a ''blow to public higher education."
''It shows that in certain ways it's business as usual," he said. ''The private institutions in Boston will dictate what happens, and the crumbs that are left over go to public higher education."
University leaders said it was too soon to say how or when they will try to move the plan forward.
Several board members said they were inclined to support the merger, but could not get past the legal questions raised by board lawyers about the university's plan to operate the law school under state rules for continuing education. That designation would allow law school tuition to be held in a trust fund and managed by law school leaders, instead of being returned to the state's general fund.
UMass officials said such arrangements are common on state campuses -- all state college master's degree programs are funded that way, they said -- and would ensure that the school is self-supporting.
But Joseph Sullivan, general counsel for the Board of Higher Education, said the law permits only ''supplemental, incidental, or ancillary" activities to be operated with trust funds, not core activities, such as running a law school.
''When a board is confronted with a problem by its attorney, I think we have to listen," said board member David P. Driscoll, the state's commissioner of education. Board member Peter Alcock Jr., chairman of the Fitchburg State College board of trustees, called the legal disagreement ''the straw that broke the camel's back," given other unanswered questions about the university's ability to recruit more high-achieving law students, a shift seen as essential to securing ABA accreditation.
Karam, the UMass trustee chairman, questioned the concern about the trust fund plan. ''I think this was a way to get the issue off the table temporarily," he said.
The law school vote followed release of a report by a legislative task force that found the state's public higher-education system is underfunded by more than $300 million. Despite repeated assurances by UMass that it could cover the cost of law school improvements by increasing enrollment from 250 to 550, several board members said they were hesitant to add a new school when resources are already stretched thin. Driscoll said he would like to see a law school at UMass, but said he ''would be more worried about putting more money in the system for the current students first."
Other no votes came from board members John Brockelman, a corporate affairs manager for Fidelity Investments; businessman Matthew E. Carlin; real estate developer Richard Taylor, a former state transportation secretary in the Weld administration; and Jeanne-Marie Boylan, vice president of Boston Sand & Gravel and chairwoman of the Bunker Hill Community College trustees.
Carlin called the university's proposal reasonable, but said the state has ''other, more pressing unmet needs."
In a statement released yesterday, Romney said: ''Given the unanswered questions surrounding this proposal, the board made the responsible decision. I have spoken with university president Jack Wilson, and we agree that our highest priority is to focus attention on raising the quality and standing of the existing five-campus system."
Voting to approve the law school plan were Karl White, the UMass trustee who serves on the Board of Higher Education; student representative Shawn Robinson, and union leader Kathleen Kelley, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers.
Initially opposed to the plan, Robinson said he became convinced that UMass was committed and was ''going to make it happen."
White said the addition of a law school would advance UMass trustees' ''desire to see the institution be as great as it can be."
Those from other law schools also commended the board. ''This merger was rejected on the merits, as the proponents never put forward the true cost to taxpayers, nor did they demonstrate that a public law school is necessary to fulfill the need for public service attorneys," said a statement from John O'Brien, dean of New England School of Law.
Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com.