The possible move of the South Dakota School of Law has prompted discussions and some concerns among current law school students.
Morgan Nelson, a third-year law student and president of the Student Bar Association, said she’s in favor of the move.
“As a task force member, I’m leaning towards relocation, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not open to new information,” she said.
One of two students on the task force, Nelson has been putting on presentations for other law students to keep them informed and hear their concerns.
“I’ve been really lucky to have students be very involved and help me a lot… there’s probably been a core group of like 10 people that have stayed kind of up on the issue,” she said.
Trying to represent the views of all students during the task force meetings has been “a lot of work,” she said.
“I think Morgan and SBA here has done a good job of trying to get a sense of what all students feel,” said Alayna Holmstrom, a third-year law student. “And I know Morgan has advocated on our behalf to the task force, but I still think that if the task force was serious about students’ perspectives, they would’ve suggested also maybe having a representative from each class, because Morgan is just one person.”
Holmstrom, who got her undergraduate degree at USD, attended her first year of law school at the University of Minnesota, then transferred back.
“With my background, I’m just really against the law school moving,” she said. “Because, in short, I think our law school, as well as a lot of law schools around the nation, are facing some issues that will not be solved solely by moving where the law school is.”
Kelcy Schaunaman, first-year law student, said she was initially in favor staying in Vermillion, but now feels differently.
“I see the move as a good thing. I feel like there’s maybe some untapped potential for opportunities in Sioux Falls, that if we stay here we’re just kind of staying and doing the same thing,” she said. “I feel we might ultimately end up in the same rut that we’re in right now.”
Senator Arthur Rusch, R-S.D., said most of the people he’s talked to don’t support a move to Sioux Falls.
“I think the evidence is pretty well-established that the decline in enrollment here in Vermillion has nothing at all to do with the fact that it’s in Vermillion,” he said. “Enrollment in law schools have declined across the country and Harvard, Yale, Columbia – their enrollments have all gone down, too.”
Rusch also has concerns about what a move would do to rural towns in the state, which already have a difficult time attracting lawyers.
“One of the things we’ve done in the legislature is to try and get more lawyers to go to the small towns,” he said. “So what we’ve done is this rural practice initiative, where the state and the Bar Association and the counties are getting together and trying to provide some funds for young lawyers to go out to these rural communities and start practices in the small communities… The law school is designed not just to provide lawyers to Sioux Falls, but to provide lawyers statewide, and that’s why the legislature has funded some of this rural practice initiative.”
Bert Bucher, a third-year law student, said he’s “for data-driven decisions.”
“And I have seen no data thus far that suggests at all that moving to Sioux Falls is a better fiscal choice, a better choice for students, a better choice for recruiting faculty, a better choice for prospective students,” he said.
One alternative to moving the school to Sioux Falls is renovating the school’s current building. Thomas Geu, dean of the law school, estimated in the last task force meeting that renovations could cost anywhere from $10.4 to $12.2 million.
“I think the whole construction thing while we’re here also might be a bigger turnoff than we would hope,” Schaunaman said. “So that’s also another concern.”
Nelson said determining the school’s location is a necessary first step before a “huge investment” is made.
“The location debate is appropriate right now because if we use taxpayer resources or tax dollars or student dollars, we need to address this age-old question of, ‘Should the law school move to Sioux Falls?’ and put it to bed. One way or the other, we need to know,” she said. “The decision of where we should be is first, because that decision impacts certain donors certain ways.”
Another possibility the task force discussed was splitting the law school between Vermillion and Sioux Falls.
Nelson said that option isn’t feasible for most student groups.
“Most students don’t see that as a solution,” she said. “A lot of people basically gave me letters so that I could illustrate that that option is not feasible across the board.”
Schaunaman is also against a potential split.
“I think it would really be a detriment to 1Ls, not being able to meet other people,” Schaunaman said. “It’s more than just your class, you want to be able to meet everyone.”
Bucher said he feels that the law school hasn’t talked in-depth about some of the factors that are leading prospective law students out of state.
Before last spring, there was a high turnover in the director of admissions position.
“The issue, as I see it, really, is just a failure to put our name out there,” Bucher said. “For example, there are law honors students in the undergraduate departments here on campus, and the law school didn’t even know about them. Well, that might be a little bit strong, but the law school did not recruit them and did not let them know that they were welcome into the law school.”
Liz Taggart, director of law school admissions, started her position in April.
“This position didn’t actually exist for quite some time,” she said. “It was kind of a combination of the associate dean and the registrar that did most of the admissions.”
Taggart said she recently started a student ambassadors program, which includes eight law students who help with admissions items.
Previously the assistant director of recruitment and marketing at graduate school, Taggart said she would love to see more people in law school admissions.
“I would love to have a more robust admissions staff, definitely,” she said.
Bucher said before Taggart was hired, it was a “time of upheaval.”
“Nobody really knows the answers to all the questions that are being asked about admissions until now,” Bucher said. “Liz has those answers, and she’s ensuring that we’re keeping rigorous standards.”
The first factor of USD’s law school that Taggart emphasizes to prospective students is affordability, she said.
“That’s hands-down the most important thing that we can relay to the students,” she said.
The second is career placement. Taggart said USD’s career placement rate is 91 percent.
“We’re far above the national average for career placement,” she said.
Lastly, Taggart said she emphasizes USD’s personal touch.
“We love to be small, we love to have the personal touch,” she said.
USD has the third smallest student population among the American Bar Association accredited law schools, Taggart added.
Affordability, career placement and personal touch will all still be draws to USD’s law school whether it moves or not, Taggart said.
“Those three things I think are always going to be with us, regardless of where the law school’s going to be,” she said.
Taggart’s top goal is to ensure that more scholarships are available to students.
“I think that will make us extremely competitive,” she said.
USD’s law school is unable to offer full ride scholarships, Taggart said.
“I think that’s where we really are lacking in the admissions department,” she said. “I would really like to focus on fundraising and working with the Foundation as much as we possibly can this year to make us as competitive as other schools are when we’re offering scholarships, especially as it relates to out of state students.”
When recruiting prospective students, Taggart does a cost benefit analysis to demonstrate that USD’s overall cost is usually less than other schools, even if they do offer significant scholarships.
“For instance, a private school or somebody that’s close near us might be able to offer them like a $30,000 scholarship, which seems like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money, but the difference is USD has a lower cost of tuition. So we don’t offer those big chunks of money, because if we did we’d be paying them to go to school here,” she said. “So it’s hard for us to show value against a school that gives a $30,000 scholarship.”
Taggart’s other admissions goals include continuing to foster relationships with current students, connecting with undergraduate students as soon as possible and automating the admissions process.
“I think the lack of a consistent director here was important,” she said. “There have been good years and there have been bad years, and I think having someone consistently in this role is extremely important.”