VALPARAISO — The Valparaiso University Law School brought rumors to an end Thursday afternoon when it gathered students and staff to announce it is no longer financially sustainable and will be making significant changes — including not taking new admissions next year.
Other options being considered include teaming up with another law school and/or "relocating the law school to another geographic market with perceived greater demand for legal education," according to the school.
The school blamed the changes on a decline in student enrollment experienced by other law schools across the nation, and financial challenges as a result of lessening demand for graduates in the job market.
VU's president explains
VU President Mark Heckler said Thursday he is working quickly to resolve the situation. Maintaining American Bar Association accreditation is critical, he said, so he is hoping the faculty will remain at the school rather than jumping ship.
"There's been no decision to close the law school," he emphasized.
As alternatives develop, VU will work with the ABA to make sure the law school would retain accreditation, he said.
Heckler listed a number of examples of law school mergers, relocations and outright acquisitions across the nation in recent years.
Among the challenges facing the law school is that there are six in the Chicago metro market, all competing for the same students, and there are three others in Indiana. Relocating the law school is among the options VU is considering.
Not since the late 1800s, when a school of medicine at VU closed down, has the university seen a school within the university actually shut down, Heckler said. That was a time of great restructuring for VU.
VU's law school has been around for 138 years.
Heckler met Thursday with faculty and staff, then with law students. He said VU would keep its promise to those students that they would graduate from an ABA-accredited law school and have full access to placement services afterward.
VU law school graduates have gone on to serve as Indiana Supreme Court justices, general counsels of large corporations like Monsanto and partners in "some of the largest, most prestigious law firms in the country," Heckler said.
While the law school's finances are suffering from the declining enrollment facing law schools nationwide, "the university itself is as strong as it's ever been," Heckler said.
The news came as a blow to many of the students, who have been trying to guess what's coming since receiving an unexpected email Wednesday morning from Dean Andrea Lyon asking them to take part in a meeting Thursday concerning the future of the school.
"I lost sleep last night over this," said Brandon Niezgodski, a third-year law student from South Bend.
Following the announcement, he said, "No matter what happens to the school, I’m grateful for the opportunity Valparaiso Law provided me."
"I refuse to let upsetting information define my future," he said. "Come May, I will still have a law degree from an ABA-accredited school, and I know I’ll be ready to pass the bar in July."
Greg Maleska, also a third-year student, is editor and chief of the school's law review.
"It's definitely disappointing," he said.
While first- and second-year students face doubts about the future of the school and the potential of transferring elsewhere, Maleska said he is concerned about what impact the news will have on his job search after graduation.
Frederick Kraegel, chairman of the board of directors of Valparaiso University, said the changes announced were a very difficult decision.
"As the need for legal education continues to be challenged, we have taken numerous actions during the last several years to try to stabilize the law school’s financial situation," he said.
Steps have included reducing employment levels last year, Kraegel said.
"We are focused on ensuring fair and reasonable treatment of those impacted by this decision through an orderly and carefully considered process," he said.
"These financial circumstances do not diminish the law school’s proud legacy of more than 130 years, and the thousands of successful law graduates who lead and serve around the world," Kraegel said.
The law school's situation is distinct from the overall university, which continues to be financially sustainable, he said.
Times Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross contributed to this story.