Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

November 21, 2001

Both sides working on plan to spin off law clinic

Law school faculty and administrators hope by May to spin off Pitt's Environmental Law Clinic as an independent entity.

They expect that the new arrangement will save the clinic from bankruptcy while blunting attacks by lawmakers who resent the clinic representing opponents of the Mon-Fayette Expressway project and logging in the Allegheny National Forest.

Last summer, state legislators added a line to Pitt's appropriation, stating that no state money could be used by the clinic. In response, the University administration began charging the clinic for overhead and administrative expenses at a rate that could bankrupt it within a year, according to clinic director Thomas Buchele.

Buchele, environmental law program director William Luneburg, law Dean David Herring and the law school's clinic committee are working with an outside attorney on a plan to cut the clinic loose as a separate, nonprofit entity affiliated with Pitt.

Herring said, "I'm very hopeful that we're going to be able to work something out that keeps the clinic viable as a very strong educational program. We're in the process of negotiating the details of that."

Buchele said he doesn't want his or the clinic's work on controversial cases to hurt Pitt. "If we can work out some alternative arrangement that protects the educational role of the clinic and my status as a professor, as well as guaranteeing a permanent funding base and protecting the University from attacks by the state Legislature, I'm going to try to do that," Buchele said.

The Heinz Endowments granted $2 million to the University's capital campaign last year to establish the Environmental Law Clinic, which gives Pitt law students hands-on experience representing environmental groups that could not otherwise afford attorneys.

Caren Glotfelty, director of environmental programs for the Heinz Endowments, said, "We're not opposed to separating the clinic from the University by making it a separate institution of some sort.

"Whatever form the Environmental Law Clinic may take in the future, what's important to us is that certain principles be protected. The most important is academic freedom, the right of educators and students to teach and learn in an atmosphere that's free from political constraints. Also, the clinic must be able to continue representing environmentalist clients who could not otherwise afford legal representation."

So far, Glotfelty said, Pitt has lived up to the conditions under which the Heinz Endowments awarded its $2 million grant.

Controversy over state pressure to silence the Environmental Law Clinic — and the Pitt administration's response to that pressure — have prompted discussions at faculty meetings and a protest outside the Cathedral of Learning. Chancellor Mark Nordenberg argued the administration's side of the issue in the Oct. 25 University Times and a subsequent letter to the Pitt community.

At the Nov. 12 Senate Council meeting, professors claimed that academic freedom will suffer if the University caves in to state lawmakers on the Environmental Law Clinic issue.

"A precedent of this variety, if left unchallenged, creates — for lack of a better term — open season on the part of the Legislature for any program that they don't particularly like," said medical professor Nicholas Bircher.

"I think this is a matter of great concern," said psychology professor James Holland. He likened it to a 1961 incident in which legislators threatened to cut off state funds to Pitt (then a private university) for refusing to fire Robert G. Colodny, a professor of history and of the history and philosophy of science. Colodny had supported the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and other organizations labeled as un-American by the U.S. attorney general, and had fought with the international Abraham Lincoln Brigade on the Loyalists' side in the Spanish Civil War.

Harrisburg's attacks on Pitt during the Colodny controversy made the Environmental Law Clinic issue "look like a mosquito bite," Holland said. Yet, then-Chancellor Edward Litchfield fiercely defended Colodny, winning praise from Pitt faculty and many people outside the University, Holland noted.

Nordenberg said the clinic issue is "quite different from the Colodny situation," which was primarily about the First Amendment.

"When you move from issues that involve freedom of speech — where virtually all Americans, as our society has been structured, do enjoy great freedom — to issues of action, where, on the other hand, most all of us are subject to regulation of one kind or another, there is a significant difference," the chancellor said.

He and Provost James Maher said they, together with law Dean Herring and Pitt governmental relations staff, have spent many hours since last summer, mainly behind the scenes, defending the Environmental Law Clinic and principles of academic freedom.

"I think we have been effective, in part, because we have worked quietly and respectfully, acknowledging that there are those who have different points of view" from those of clinic supporters, Nordenberg said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 7

Leave a Reply