The University of Minnesota has seen the worst of hard times that hit the nation’s law schools — and things should start looking up.
That was the prediction of the Law School’s outgoing dean in a Thursday presentation to U regents chock-full of sobering statistics and a dash of hopeful news.
The Law School, which has seen its applicant pool shrink by almost half and its enrollment dip by a third since 2010, has a plan to pull through, leaders said.
“It looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn’t that far out,” said David McMillan, the Board of Regents’ vice chair and a graduate of the Law School.
Dean David Wippman said he expects that by 2020, the Law School can end its reliance on year-end financial injections from the university to balance its budget, which have totaled about $16 million since 2012.
The measures the Law School has been taking likely will continue to sting, though: The faculty will keep shrinking by attrition, and the school will stick with austerity measures, from support-staff cuts to the end of free coffee in the faculty lounge.
Wippman recalled a sense of optimism as he started the job eight years ago amid robust enrollment and a seemingly thriving economy.
“I thought, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ ” he told the regents. “I don’t ask this question anymore.”
The glut of new attorneys produced by a growing number of law schools nationally has caught up with higher education institutions in recent decades. Applications to law schools nationwide have plummeted by some 40 percent in the past 10 years.
The trend affected the Great Lakes region particularly hard, with Minnesota reporting the sharpest drop in takers of the LSAT law school entrance exam.
In a surprise move last year, two of Minnesota’s four law schools — Hamline and William Mitchell — merged after four decades of rivalry.
Just under 2,000 people applied to the U’s law school last year, down from 3,860 five years earlier. The school enrolled 176 students, compared with 260 in 2010.
“What has this meant for our budget?” asked Wippman. “Well, it’s meant a lot of pain.”
The Law School relies on tuition for about 60 percent of its revenue.
In a “double bind,” the school also had to step up financial aid to continue attracting strong candidates during the Great Recession, Wippman said.
As a result, the Law School has leaned more heavily on private fundraising and university support to address its budget gap. It has resisted the temptation to boost enrollment, which would bring on less-stellar student classes and a damaging dip in rankings. The Law School is tied for 20th place nationally in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
“The balance of quality and applications is key, and we’ve made a decision to maintain quality,” said U President Eric Kaler.
Instead, the Law School made almost $2 million in cuts last fiscal year, with another $800,000 so far this year.
There are hopeful signs, Wippman said. Experts believe the supply of new attorneys is finally coming into line with market demand. As word gets out, he said, law schools might see a long-awaited uptick in applicants.
His projection of a balanced budget by the 2019-20 academic year assumes a handful of faculty retirements, annual tuition increases of 2.5 percent, stable enrollment, and a modest rise in faculty salaries and benefits.
Meanwhile, a search is underway to replace Wippman, who will leave for the top job at a New York college in the summer.
Max Hall, a student representative to the board who attends the Law School, wondered if the U can use the moment as an opportunity to boost its ranking.
Wippman said the school could strategically shrink enrollment slightly to trigger a “virtuous upward spiral” of higher admission standards, a higher ranking and higher application numbers.
“But we don’t have the resources,” Wippman said.