The first class of the Nashville School of Law at Tennessee State University was set to graduate this year. But there was no pomp and circumstance. No happy tears. No tassel-moving. Like a weird version of "It's a Wonderful Life," there was no graduation because there is no law school. A merger of the two schools never happened.
It should have happened. Still should now. Still can now. It's a marriage made in heaven: TSU needs a law school to raise its prestige and help diversify its campus. The Nashville School of Law needs to affiliate with a university so it can gain accreditation — without it, its grads cannot practice law outside Tennessee state lines.
A yearlong effort to merge the two in 2002 fizzled like a rain-soaked sparkler. But this is now. The 38-year-old desegregation case was gaveled to a close last week. TSU stands to get millions of dollars in the court settlement. And at least one powerful TSU alumnus believes it's time to try again for a law school, with or without the Nashville School of Law. "Yes, it can happen," said State. Sen. Thelma Harper. "Why shouldn't we have a law school? With the energized alumni association across the country, and with the local input and with the administration's input, I think it has an opportunity to happen like never before. There is not a better time than now."
The Nashville School of Law opened in 1911. It offers low-cost night law classes for working people. It's also a political petri dish, breeding judges, council members, prosecutors and renowned defense attorneys. But it can be accredited nationally only if there's a full-time faculty. Longtime NSOL officials, such as Dean Joe C. Loser Jr., have feared accreditation would prove too expensive to benefit the type students they have now and want to keep. Loser did not return a phone call last week.
In 2001, a proposed settlement agreement was reached in the desegregation lawsuit. It gave the law school and TSU a year to discuss a possible merger (the law school was not involved in the lawsuit).
They did just that, coming up with a brilliant proposal: The law school would merge with TSU and set up shop in Nashville's old downtown library. They would continue to have night classes but also would have a full-time day program. They got down to brass tacks, but the whole thing fell apart.
TSU Prof.Ray Richardson, an adviser to the president, said last week they would love to have a law school, in theory. "We're still gung ho," he said. "The reason we're not pushing for it is that we signed on to the agreement that if the Nashville School of Law did not come on board, then we would get a Ph.D. program. We can't get a Ph.D. program and turn around and ask the state for a law school.
The main reason the deal fell apart was NSOL officials feared the state's precarious financial position. Those involved said if the state's financial status ever changed, the door would reopen.
Well, lookie here: One lawsuit settled? Check. Millions of available dollars? Check. State government in good financial shape? Check. One wide open door? Check. If not now, then when? •