A&M awaits board's decision on law school addition

President seems doubtful project will be approved

Michelle Norton

Staff Writer

Texas A&M University officials showed no surprise upon hearing that their request for a law and legal studies program had been denied by the Universities Committee of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

July 2, committee members voted 6-2 to deny A&M's request to add the programs and affiliate itself with Houston's South Texas College of Law.

In January, A&M and South Texas, a private law school in downtown Houston, announced an "affiliation" that would change South Texas' name to the Texas A&M University Law Center.

"It is not out of culture to be turned down the first time," said A&M President Ray Bowen. "The concept, in a sense, is new to Texas."

According to South Texas spokeswoman Sheila Hansel, the agreement was beneficial to both schools, giving A&M a long-desired law school and South Texas national name recognition.

Under the agreement, South Texas would function as A&M's law studies arm but would not receive state funds.

According to the staff report issued by the committee, the vote was the result of several concerns that members were unable to resolve.

Coordinating Board information officer Ray Grasshoff said the committee examined two specific areas: first, whether or not the law center would duplicate any of the other law programs in Houston, and second, whether or not there is a need for more lawyers in the state of Texas.

The committee's decision follows months of debate among University of Houston officials concerning the affiliation.

Concern arose among UH officials following the January announcement because A&M did not gain approval by any of the state's review and approval processes before entering in the venture.

Texas law requires that all state universities report to the Coordinating Board, and since the issue is law-related, the school is required to notify the American Bar Association when initiating any structural changes.

In April, UH System Chancellor/UH President Arthur K. Smith expressed his concern about the issue in a memo to UH officials.

"We should not condone any short cuts taken to avoid complying with the Coordinating Board's procedures and expectations, which have evolved with the approval of the Texas Governor and Legislature, to bring about an orderly public-policy process for higher education in this state," he wrote.

In response to concerns, the Bar Association met in April to review the agreement and A&M's statement of intent. The accreditation committee will meet in Toronto in August to make a final decision either to consent to the agreement or issue a provisional agreement with a term of one year.

At that time, members will make routine visits to South Texas to ensure the quality of the college.

One of the central concerns surrounding the issue was whether or not the private college would use public funds. Aware of the need for strict appropriation of limited state funds, Smith wrote, "Even the most trusting soul among us should recognize that we will have set out on a very slippery slope, and that strong and probably irresistible pressures will then lead in due course to public funding for the merged entity that would result."

Bowen, however, maintains that even if there is any use of public funds by the law center, it would be incidental. "You can't account for every single cent spent on communication between two schools," he said.

For example, he said, state funds are used when the president of UH meets with the president of Rice University to discuss program matters, and yet Rice is a private institution.

Duplication of law programs was yet another concern by university officials. Texas already has four public law schools: those at UH, Texas Southern University, The University of Texas and Texas Tech University. If the partnership between A&M and South Texas were approved, three law schools would be located in Houston.

UH Law Center Dean Stephen Zamora discussed that concern to The Daily Cougar this spring. "TSU and UH are both in Houston, but they are very different," he said. "I am concerned that the interests of the Coordinating Board may be duplicated (with this arrangement)."

The full board will vote on the issue at its quarterly meeting July 16 and 17. According to Grasshoff, the board has the option of considering the subcommittee's recommendation, but is not required in any way to vote according to its opinion.

However, Bowen seems certain that the committee's action foreshadows the board's denial of A&M's request. "It is extraordinary for the board not to follow the recommendation of the Universities Committee," he said. "At the next meeting, we will have to make a better proposal."

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