UI Chicago moving ahead on merger with private law school in Loop

UI Chicago moving ahead on merger with private law school in Loop

CHICAGO — The University of Illinois at Chicago could soon have its own law school, a counterpart to the 121-year-old College of Law at the Urbana campus.

The UI Chicago announced last November that it was in merger talks with John Marshall Law School, a diverse private institution in Chicago's South Loop area.

The university is now poised to move forward, asking UI trustees Thursday to approve a resolution supporting the idea and a formal proposal to establish the UI Chicago John Marshall College of Law. Details of those agenda items were not available Tuesday.

Coincidentally, the move comes just two weeks after the Carle Illinois College of Medicine opened at the Urbana campus.

The UI Chicago has a major health care center and one of the nation's largest medical schools.

With a crucial vote pending, top officials at the Chicago campus, the UI system and John Marshall declined comment on the merger Tuesday.

But backers at both schools have noted that almost two-thirds of the public universities designated as top-tier research institutions by the Carnegie Foundation have law schools. The UI Chicago, the second-largest university in the state, is among the 35 percent that do not.

John Marshall is an independent law school, and its affiliation with UIC would allow it to expand its current programs within a strong public university, creating the first public law school in Chicago, officials say.

A merger website set up by the two schools cites a natural alignment between the campus' public mission and John Marshall's commitment to "provide access and opportunity to students from underserved communities and to help fill the justice gap for citizens in the Chicago area. The new arrangement would fill a significant void in the country's third-largest city. Chicago is one of very few major cities in the United States without a public law school."

'Not a joint enterprise'

Vikram Amar, dean of the College of Law in Urbana, said the proposed merger is wholly separate from the existing UI College of Law.

"This is not a joint enterprise in any way," Amar said. "I wish them well if they go forward and it gets all the requisite approvals."

John Marshall is a "completely different law school with a different mission and a different student body and a different alumni base," he said.

Founded in 1899, John Marshall has about 900 students, twice the size of the more selective UI College of Law.

But like other law schools, Marshall has seen an enrollment decline, down from 1,200 in 2011, according to American Bar Association reports.

The UI Chicago, on the other hand, has been growing steadily, with overall enrollment last fall up 5 percent to a record 30,539.

The UI Chicago and John Marshall had tried to negotiate a partnership before, back in 1998, ranging from an affiliation to a merger. But those negotiations ended in 2001.

More recently, the two schools held informal talks for 16 months before November's announcement, which said a preliminary financial assessment by an outside consultant and an internal analysis concluded a merger would be feasible.

Funding specifics TBA

A message to the campus from Chancellor Michael Amiridis and Provost Susan Poser said benefits could include new interdisciplinary programs for students and research opportunities for faculty that bridge law and other fields at UIC, including health sciences, engineering and technology, urban planning, public administration, social sciences and business.

"For 50 years, we have had a gap in our academic canvas that affects our ability to fulfill our mission," Amiridis said in a "state of the campus" speech last spring, attended by Marshall's dean, Darby Dickerson.

Future leaders in UI Chicago's highly rated public administration programs need to learn about the legal components of their work, engineers need to learn about intellectual property issues and future public health experts need to know how to write policy, he said.

Law faculty can supplement the work of researchers in "educational, health care, economic and criminal justice inequities in our neighborhoods. This is one of our core strengths," Amiridis said.

Since last fall's announcement, faculty and staff from the two schools have been exploring issues related to a merger in more detail, including financial considerations, real estate, accreditation, possible academic collaborations, student interests and educational policy.

The law school would continue to operate out of its downtown Chicago facility.

UI officials have promised that no funds currently allocated to other UI colleges would be used for the law school, according to the website, but just how it would be funded wasn't detailed.

'Broad Chicago platform'

Exactly when the merger would take effect is also unclear. It does not require legislative action, but it would have to be approved by trustees from both schools, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and both the American Bar Association's legal education council and the Higher Learning Commission, the accrediting agency for both schools.

Amar said the UI College of Law in Urbana will continue its long-standing presence in Chicago, where many of its graduates end up working and more than half of its alumni live. That includes lectures, alumni events and a residency program for third-year students. Amar also has an office in Chicago.

"Probably half of my employers are there. I deal with judges there; I deal with general counsels for big companies there; I deal with private law firms, government agencies," he said. "We have a very broad Chicago platform.

"None of that will be affected by anything that UIC does, just as I don't think it's my place to tell another university what they should be doing."

How they compare

Amar said the national decline in law school enrollments since 2011 hasn't prompted a huge number of mergers.

Only one not-for-profit law school, in Whittier, Calif., has announced it would close, and a couple of for-profit schools have explored mergers, he said.

John Marshall isn't included in U.S. News & World Report's rankings of the top 150 law schools. The UI College of Law currently ranks 37th.

But according to Marshall's website, its programs in legal writing, trial advocacy and intellectual property law all ranked in the top 20.

Tuition at John Marshall is $48,600 annually. The UI College of Law is cheaper for Illinois residents ($38,098) and comparable for out-of-state students ($48,098).

The UI law school accepts fewer applicants (46.4 percent versus Marshall's 68.7 percent) and its freshmen had higher median LSAT scores (161 versus 148) in 2017, according to ABA data.