Developing a Sustainable Financial Model at VLS

Dear Vermont Law School Community:

Less than a year ago, I arrived in South Royalton to serve Vermont Law School as the new President and Dean. I have quickly learned what a close and conscientious community this truly is, and also just how big some of the challenges are that we face together.

It is no secret that VLS, like many institutions of higher education (and particularly law schools), has been facing considerable financial pressures for most of this decade.

VLS is a small, independent institution. These very characteristics help shape our community and serve our mission of producing great lawyers and making the world more sustainable and just through education. These same characteristics—small, independent—also mean that VLS doesn’t have a larger university to rely on for administrative support, fundraising help, or to fill budget deficits. Accordingly, we must be self-reliant.

To survive in today’s fiscal landscape, and to thrive going forward, we have to insist on a sustainable financial model that delivers a quality education to each and every student who arrives in South Royalton or logs in for our online classes. With the unanimous support and guidance of our Board of Trustees, we are currently undergoing a process of programmatic restructuring: one that focuses our faculty and staff resources on our core educational goals and most essential and useful programs.

Since October, we have been engaged with our staff and faculty in looking closely at our financial model – soliciting their ideas and feedback on various proposals, listening to their concerns, and weighing options. We have worked hard from the outset to come up with solutions as a community. We have received great ideas and some incredibly generous offers from faculty, some of whom have offered to transition to part time, to take on more work and responsibility without a pay increase, and even volunteered to reduce their salary. We are beyond grateful for their commitment to the school, and for exemplifying the ethic of sacrifice for the greater good.

Indeed, this process has also raised some difficult decisions and conversations. We continue to work aggressively to be as fair and equitable as possible, to develop solutions cooperatively, and to provide options to all impacted faculty to continue their working relationships with VLS in some form. However, some current faculty and staff will move on and pursue other opportunities. They will always have our utmost respect and gratitude for the time they have served the VLS community.

Our environmental program will remain a core, integral part of the school. It’s worth repeating: VLS will continue to be a national leader in environmental law and policy, and we will continue to produce many of the best environmental lawyers and policy advocates in the country. In making these structural changes, we are committed to maintaining and improving our preeminent environmental program.

If you are a current or incoming student, I’m sure you’re wondering: how will this affect my education? You will continue to have a high quality education in every classroom and online class. There will be no shortage of classes or electives, and you will still find plenty of opportunities for experiential learning in the many centers and clinics, as well as small seminars for more personal in-class experiences.

For our alumni, our donors, and the members of the greater VLS community, I am sure you are wondering: what does this mean for the institution? It means a more efficient and financially sustainable VLS that is focused on the educational goals and programs that matter most. It also means that after a number of years of financial uncertainty, we have made the tough decisions that will create the conditions necessary for the continued success of the law school.

Later this month, we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Environmental Law Center, and in four short years, our 50th class of JDs will arrive on campus. We are making these hard decisions today with the goal of ensuring that VLS remains at the forefront of environmental law for at least another four decades, and that South Royalton will host a Centennial for what I truly believe is one of the best and most influential law schools in the country.

As your President and Dean, I genuinely want to hear your thoughts and concerns. Current students know I am available every Tuesday morning for the “Dawn Patrol” hike up Kent’s Ledge. For alumni and anyone who considers themselves part of the VLS family, I hope you will reach out and share your thoughts or questions.

There are some additional details about restructuring in an article in today’s Valley News.

Thomas McHenry

President and Dean, Professor of Law at Vermont Law School
164 Chelsea Street, P.O. Box 96, South Royalton, VT 05068
T: 802-831-1237