The University of Vermont and Vermont Law School have begun holding closed-door meetings to discuss the future of their business relationship. And the possibility of UVM acquiring the Royalton law school has some residents on edge.
At a meeting of the Royalton selectboard earlier this month, a resident approached the body to ask about a rumor circulating around town. Word had it, the resident said, that UVM was going to buy up Vermont Law School and move operations to Burlington.
Ever since the UVM Board of Trustees convened an ad hoc work group in January to explore the university’s relationship with VLS, questions have surfaced about what exactly the schools are up to. Asked about prospects for a merger, the heads of the institutions earlier this week issued a joint statement. It said the schools were quote “exploring programmatic and academic opportunities between the institutions.”
Larry Trottier, chairman of the Royalton selectboard, says VLS officials have indicated to him that they’ll have more information about talks with UVM later this spring. But Trottier says he doesn’t see the law school moving.
“If it came out that, you know, the law school was going to move out of the town of Royalton and go to UVM, you know that might hit hard,” Trottier says. “But I don’t think that that is going to happen. When I say that ... my gut feeling is no.”
The meetings of the UVM work group are closed to the public. The board has indicated that the meetings are held in executive session for the purposes of discussing contracts. But at least three UVM trustees have confirmed that the possibility of UVM acquiring VLS outright is one of many scenarios the work group is examining. Those trustees, who declined to speak on the record, say the acquisition is anything but a done deal. But Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a former trustee whose district includes VLS, says the possibilities for partnerships are myriad.
“That might include everything from partnering with particular degree programs and online services to, you know, moving all the way to sort of the full contemplation of a relationship would be some sort of unification of the two institutions,” Buxton says.
Buxton resigned her post on the UVM board over fears that the interests of her constituents in Royalton might not align with the goals of UVM, should it decide to acquire VLS.
The schools entered in a degree-sharing program last year.
VLS’ financial troubles have been well-documented. Class sizes for the J.D. program had been forecast to drop significantly last year. The school relies on tuition for revenue and does not have a large endowment to fall back on. It has resorted to layoffs and buyouts to balance the ledger.
Trottier says the law school plays an critical role in the commerce and culture of Royalton.
“I mean the town would really look at whole different if the law school was not in the town of Royalton, if it was gone,” Trottier says. “It would look a whole lot different.”
UVM’s VLS work group last met on Feb. 27. The board has not announced its next meeting, and UVM officials have declined to comment on what specific issues the work group is discussing.