Admins: UI Chicago-John Marshall merger creates bounty of benefits

Admins: UI Chicago-John Marshall merger creates bounty of benefits

URBANA — The University of Illinois Chicago's plan to acquire John Marshall Law School wasn't a big surprise to Robert Jones, chancellor of the UI's Urbana-Champaign campus.

He's been down this road himself, engineering a similar move as president of the University of Albany when the school formally affiliated with the Albany School of Law.

Jones said he understands how important the acquisition of John Marshall will be for the Chicago campus.

"When Chancellor (Michael) Amiridis first mentioned it to me, I told him I thought this was wonderful, and very appropriate as he tries to expand the academic scope of UIC," Jones said after Thursday's vote by UI trustees approving the merger. "We think it's great for the campus, and we think it's going to be great for the system."

After two years of talks and financial feasibility studies, UI trustees authorized Amiridis to negotiate a transfer agreement to establish the UIC John Marshall College of Law.

The acquisition of the private downtown Chicago law school would take effect in fall 2019, with John Marshall transferring its students, faculty, assets and degree programs to the university over five years. Trustees at John Marshall also approved the plan on a unanimous vote Thursday.

"It's just amazing to be able to create Chicago's first public law school. This is overdue for the third-largest city in the United States," said John Marshall Dean Darby Dickerson.

The new entity will offer more affordable tuition to Illinois residents as part of the school's land-grant mission to serve the state, without any additional state funding, Amiridis said.

Tuition will be "significantly" cheaper for Illinois residents than the $48,600 John Marshall charges now, though the UI is still working out the numbers, he said.

Amridis said the two schools are a "natural fit," noting John Marshall's diverse student body and "public-minded" approach to legal education.

"It adds value to what we do at UIC, and at the same time it provides a brighter future for John Marshall," he said.

Amiridis said he expects the required approvals and transfer agreements to be completed by next July. The merger needs approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the U.S. Department of Education and both the American Bar Association's legal education council and the Higher Learning Commission.

IBHE Executive Director Al Bowman expressed support in a release: "UIC and John Marshall Law School are exemplary institutions with similar guiding principles to provide access and opportunity for students who are underserved, who are first generation, and who may not follow a traditional path to higher education."

Faculty 'clearly excited'

Officials say the law school will continue to generate enough revenue through tuition to support its operations and won't require any state funding or internal reallocations from other programs at the UI Chicago or the UI system.

John Marshall and its foundation will transfer their funds and endowments to the UI Foundation over five years, as permitted by law and gift agreements.

The law school will continue to operate in three buildings and other office space it owns in downtown Chicago, valued by Crain's at $30 million. The UI Chicago will lease the space until it's transferred to the university.

"This is a very exciting opportunity for UIC and the city of Chicago," said Trustee Ramon Cepeda, a UI Chicago graduate.

The newly merged law school would accept its first class in fall 2019.

Enrollment for this fall is expected to be about 1,000 students. The school will continue to offer its Juris Doctor, Master of Laws and Master of Jurisprudence degrees, and separate requests to establish them as UI degrees will be reviewed this coming year by the UI Chicago faculty senate, University Senates Conference and UI Board of Trustees. The faculty senate and Senates Conference signed off on the plan this spring.

"The faculty are clearly excited about this, not just the senates ... but rank-and-file faculty," UI President Tim Killeen said.

About 50 full-time Marshall law professors will become faculty members at the UI Chicago. Dickerson, John Marshall's dean, will report to the campus provost.

Amiridis said he approached John Marshall about the idea two years ago, in summer 2016, after considering the need for a public law school in Chicago. He knew the two schools had tried to negotiate a partnership before, in 1998, ranging from an affiliation to a merger. But those negotiations ended in 2001.

The two schools announced last November that they were in merger talks.

'The right fit culturally'

Dickerson, former law dean at Texas Tech, wasn't named dean at John Marshall until December 2016. She was told about the possibility during her final on-campus interview.

"I was a little surprised but quickly saw the upside," she said.

The initial reaction by John Marshall's board was "curiosity," she said. As one trustee reminded her Thursday, "back in the summer of 2016, probably 80 to 90 percent of our board was very skeptical and would have voted no."

But two years of talks and leadership changes turned that view, she said.

John Marshall hadn't been actively looking for a partner, though it's been approached by other institutions since then, she said.

It's been a challenging decade for law schools, with John Marshall and most others experiencing enrollment declines since 2010, but financially the school was still in a "very good position," she said.

"This was not a distressed law school," she said, noting the value of the downtown property. "That's part of what made this work. We weren't in a position where we had to do anything. This is a deal we want to do."

UIC was "the right fit culturally," she said. "It's already helped us to recruit faculty here. Both schools are committed to access and excellence."

Amiridis said the biggest hurdle was figuring out how to make it work.

"Taking a private entity and bringing it into the public with the bureaucracy we have and all the rules and regulations is not trivial," he said Thursday. "It was also the question to make sure financially it works."

'It's an old idea'

For UI Chicago, the benefits include new dual-degree programs for students and interdisciplinary research opportunities for faculty that bridge law and other fields, including health sciences, engineering and technology, urban planning, public administration, social sciences and business, Amiridis said.

One initiative would be a guaranteed law-school admission track for talented students accepted into the honors college, similar to an existing program in health sciences, Amiridis said.

A "three plus three" program would also allow students to earn a bachelor's degree and a law degree in six years instead of seven, saving them significant time and money, he said.

Both leaders said the new law schools should improve access and the diversity of legal education in Chicago.

Amiridis said the move wasn't a response to the creation of a new medical school at the Urbana campus, approved by trustees in 2015. He noted the law-school merger has been discussed on and off for 20 years.

"It's an old idea," he said.

Amiridis said the move follows the UI Chicago's acquisition of independent medical, dental and pharmacy schools a century ago.

"We are confident we can follow the same tradition and the same excellence with a new law school," he said.