(This story is by Rob Wolfe of the Valley News, in which it first appeared July 19, 2017.)
SOUTH ROYALTON — Thomas McHenry, the new president and dean of Vermont Law School, says the school will weather a tough climate for legal education by relying on its influence in environmental law and the flexibility afforded by being a small, independent institution.
He referenced the ubiquity of the school’s alumni working in Vermont state government.
“I don’t think you could throw a rock in a legislative committee in Montpelier and not hit a VLS grad,” McHenry said Tuesday. (In the same breath, he also clarified that he would not like to see any legislative staffers hit with rocks.)
“If you care about Vermont, you should care about VLS,” he added.
That last line was part of an impromptu pitch for donations that McHenry reeled off during an interview in his office.
“Funny you should mention that, with the 50th anniversary coming in a few years,” he said after being asked about the possibility of a capital campaign at the school, which was founded in 1972.
McHenry said a capital campaign, as well as other major initiatives, was in the works for the next few years.
But he also noted that transformations, whether economic or educational, would not happen overnight, and that numbers of law schools and law school applicants had declined nationally.
VLS has weathered that storm so far, he said, having balanced its budget in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and even having found funds for strategic planning and new initiatives such as online courses.
In addition to its top environmental offerings, McHenry said, the South Royalton institution would differentiate itself in the market through its location and the self-selection involved in choosing a small Vermont town and the tight-knit community that entails.
“It’s not just because we’re a good environmental law school,” he said, noting that VLS still had the No. 1 environmental program in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. “It’s just a great place to go to law school.”
McHenry spoke with the Valley News on Tuesday, less than two weeks into his term. VLS’s new leader, who came to the job from private practice in Los Angeles, said there was much to learn during his transition to academia, comparing it to “drinking from a firehose.”
The 62-year-old McHenry — whose birthday happens to be April 22, Earth Day — was a partner at the global law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher before succeeding Marc Mihaly, who led the school since 2012.
A veteran fundraiser and nonprofit trustee, McHenry led the firm’s environmental law group and served on the boards of such prominent organizations as the Natural Resources Defense Council.
McHenry’s initial connection to VLS came through a professor there, John Echeverria, who knew the future president and dean from school and later invited him to teach during Vermont Law School’s summer session.
McHenry received his law degree from New York University Law School in 1983, a master’s from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 1980, and a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale College in 1977.
After completing his studies, he worked as a law clerk to a federal judge of the Eastern District of California from 1984 to 1986.
Not long afterward, he took a job at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, where he taught conservation history and environmental law and policy to undergraduates.
In addition to that work of 26 years, McHenry ran a field program to introduce students to renewable energy projects in the Mojave Desert.
Previously at the VLS summer session, he had taught environmental business transactions, or the study of environmental liabilities in business transactions, which happened to be his primary business in the private sector.
With Echeverria, McHenry also once brought VLS students to France to learn about environmental law in that country. The complexity of planning and organization for that trip led leaders to call it “le boondoggle,” he said jokingly this week, quickly adding that he’d like to run it again.
Now that he has taken over as president and dean, McHenry said he plans to learn the job before including teaching in his schedule again. Animated and conversational, he leaned over the table in his Debevoise Hall office to show a bracelet with the word “listen” on it that he wears daily.
McHenry also acknowledged that a long-term question for the school will be how it remains independent, given how many smaller law schools have merged with large universities in order to enjoy their support.
“That’s the elephant in the room,” he said, “and the answer is: We do it creatively.”
The president and dean said VLS’ roughly $23 million annual operating budget goes a long way, affording an education, he said, that “I already knew was amazing, and now I know is superlative.”
A $17 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently helped the school balance that budget and freed up about half a million dollars toward new initiatives, McHenry said. The school, for instance, is looking to open new positions in its environmental law department.
The deal, brokered by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., secured VLS an advantageous 2.4 percent interest rate on its debt. That will free the law school to direct more money toward online courses, which can allow students across the country to attend, officials said this spring.
McHenry also said size could be an advantage, rather than a burden, for VLS. In South Royalton, unlike at large research universities, he has no provost, no bureaucrats to deal with — only a board and the public.
“We can make decisions quickly,” he said. “We can act on them quickly. … We can adapt to the changes in the market more quickly than larger universities can.”
Environmentalist angst over what’s happening in Washington could benefit VLS as well, he said.
“This is not an administration that’s friendly to environmental regulations,” he said, citing the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and numerous other rollbacks of environmental protections.
“There’s a good reason to be a lawyer: because you can actually do something about it.”