By Taylor Slonaker | Community News Service
The Vermont Law School unveiled a slight name change, along with an outline for long-term growth and restructuring plans at the school’s Burlington office on St. Paul Street, Tuesday.
Starting July 1, the same time it welcomes its new president, Rodney Smolla, VLS will shift its name to Vermont Law and Graduate School, signaling an expansion into non-law-related degree programs.
Interim President and Dean Beth McCormack was joined by Interim Graduate School Dean Jenny Rushlow, and board chairman Glenn Berger in unveiling the strategic plan as well as an $8 million anonymous gift that was recently nailed down by the school. The plan was formed over two years in collaboration with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and professionals.
The $8 million donation, given over a three-year period, will be used for phasing in the strategic plan to add new master’s degrees, separate the graduate and law schools, create more cross-disciplinary approaches in degrees, and bolster the school’s existing environmental programs. A portion of the donation may also go towards the expansion of the current Burlington office.
“The gift has unrestricted support for our strategic plan and some components of restricted support for specific programs,” McCormack noted, adding that the entire sum will be applied in one way or another toward either the school’s strategic plan or its environmental programs.
New name, new offerings
VLS is adding three new master’s degree programs that will have their first incoming classes in the fall of 2023. A Master of Climate and Environmental Policy degree will be available in residential and online forms, an Executive Master of Environmental Policy will be online only, and the Master of Animal Protection Policy will be residential and online.
A new part-time juris doctor program will begin in August of this year. This JD program will have an online and in-person component, which will be hosted at the school’s Burlington office.
“The hybrid JD program is a part-time program and it’s designed to really reach a new class of students who work full time … or perhaps have parenting responsibilities. And because it’s a hybrid program that will give the flexibility for those students to continue to work and attend law school part time” said McCormack.
The Burlington location currently hosts an immigration clinic and admissions office. Going forward, the location will host the hybrid JD program, as well as the National Center on Restorative Justice. McCormack also said that the school is looking for a larger location in Burlington to house its offices.
McCormack emphasized that VLS will not be downsizing the South Royalton campus. The law school has been looking to bolster its current enrollment numbers, which sit at 450 residential students and 150 online. With the expansion of programs, particularly at the Burlington campus, the school hopes to increase its enrollment by 100 students over the next couple of years.
VLS is also planning to hire new faculty during that same timeframe as they add the new degree programs, with plans to hire three to four new faculty members each for the law and graduate schools.
“One of the first faculty hires that we’re starting with, it really underscores our commitment to social justice and the public interest, is a professor to specialize in environmental and climate justice,” said Rushlow, who underscored the growth of the public policy offerings at VLS as a reason for the separation of the Graduate and Law schools and a new focus for the school.
“With our new master’s degrees, we’re really going to double down on the focus on public policy,” she added. “And so our degrees will be as strong as any of the wonderful public policy degrees that are out there.”
The Executive Master of Environmental Policy degree is a mid-career degree that is intended for students with at least three years of work experience. The degree is entirely online so students can continue to work alongside their degree, Rushlow said.
Vermont Law School’s changes signal a future for higher education amid declining numbers. McCormack credited the COVID-19 pandemic as a learning opportunity for the school since they had to move all programs into remote instruction.
“We switched over to [remote] operations on a moment’s notice, like every other school, and we really excelled at that, I think based on our long-standing leadership and online learning,” Mc- Cormack said. “We were able to quickly pivot to that and we learned that after the pandemic, students wanted more flexibility with their graduate degrees.”
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.