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Vermont Law School Expecting 'A Healthy Number Of Students' This Fall

Law school entrance
Vermont Law School, courtesy
Vermont Law School plans to welcome students back to its South Royalton campus in the fall.

Colleges around the country are navigating the tricky process of choosing whether to re-open for in-person classes this fall. The University of Vermont, the state’s largest higher ed institution, is planning on bringing thousands of students back to school in a few months. But so are some of the state’s smaller colleges, like Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Vermont Law School President and Dean Thomas McHenry. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: You’ve said you plan to re-open for in-person classes in the fall. What are you hearing from students on whether they will return to VLS? Are you expecting fewer students?

Thomas McHenry: Well, we're very pleased to report that we have a healthy number of students coming in the fall. Hopefully, they will be healthy when they arrive. Our deposits are running about the same as last year and we enrolled 19 students in our accelerated JD program virtually last Thursday, almost half of whom have actually moved to South Royalton, even though their first semester of law school is being done virtually. So the appetite from the students to both be on campus and continue their law school study seems to be pretty strong.

What measures are you putting in place to be able to have those students actually come back to campus in the fall?

We've relied on some protocols developed in Connecticut and in the state of New York, and they involve things like testing and tracing — which would be done by the state — and social distancing. The simplistic version is: masks, gloves, temperature checks and distancing. But you can imagine that, you know, there are a host of considerations that we're taking into account because we're only going to do it if we can be sure that people are going to be safe.

And so you haven't determined at this point if students will be required to quarantine once they arrive here?

We expect that they will be required to quarantine for some period of time. But we're still working on the protocol to figure out exactly what we will require. We'd like to have similar protocols across the Vermont independent colleges, so we're all doing it the same way. And we'd also like to know that the governor and the commission that is working on economic recovery are supportive of the steps we're taking.

Vermont Law School has had its share of financial struggles in the past few years. I'm curious what the financial impact of the coronavirus shutdown has been on your school.

There's obviously been negative impacts in terms of costs, but there have also been costs that we haven't expended, such as travel. So we will actually be able to end this year in the black. And this will be the second consecutive year of a balanced budget at the school, which we're deeply proud of.

Have you had to cut costs, though, in any area?

We have not had to do any layoffs. We've only had two groups who were contracted with us. Our cleaning crews have actually stayed on and we're doing a deep cleaning of the school right now. Our cafe staff, they are on furlough at the moment, but we're hoping to welcome that them back in August with whatever the new protocols are going to be around providing food services.

What about on the faculty side? I know there were some cuts to tenured faculty a few years back at Vermont Law School. Have you had to make any additional cuts there?

Well, there were actually cuts to the faculty as a whole, not just to tenured faculty. And we did a restructuring, which has been financially very successful for the school. We're not anticipating that we will need to make any further cuts in faculty or staffing at this point. But frankly, it's just too early in the process to be certain.

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You, right now, have several dual degree programs with UVM where students can earn degrees from both schools. You also opened a Burlington office earlier this year. Is a merger with UVM in the cards for Vermont Law School in the future?

Not, I would say, certainly not in the near future. But we're looking for every opportunity to work closely with UVM on a variety of programs. We're talking to Nancy Mathews at the Rubenstein School about the possibility of jointly offering some courses together. We're thrilled about the 3+2 Program with UVM, and we're actually pursuing the possibility of having similar programs at Champlain and St. Michael's College.

Are you committed to maintaining a physical independent campus in South Royalton going forward?

Oh, I think certainly that would be the case in the near future and I expect over time as well. It's the heart of our activities and our programs. And one of the nice things about the virtual setting that we've learned so much about as a result of COVID, is it's made clear to us that from South Royalton we can offer our classes to people pretty much anywhere in the world.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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