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March 21, 2002

Law clinic to remain on campus

Pitt's Environmental Law Clinic will remain a part of the law school, with private funds covering the clinic's operating costs.

The decision runs counter to one option that would have moved the clinic off-campus as a separate, non-profit unit.

In a March 14 statement, law Dean David Herring wrote that "the existing structure and staffing of the clinic and its integral relationship to our curriculum and the school's program in environmental studies" will continue as they have been since the clinic's founding in fall 2000.

The Environmental Law Clinic gives Pitt law students hands-on experience representing environmental groups that could not otherwise afford attorneys.

In an interview, Herring said: "The bottom line is that we now have private resources to pay for 100 percent of the clinic's direct and indirect expenses for the long-term future."

Based on that funding, and following what the dean called "a full exploration of all the options," the school's faculty-student clinic committee recommended keeping the Environmental Law Clinic in-house, Herring said.

Neither the dean nor Provost James Maher would reveal the source of the clinic's additional funding. But both men emphasized that the clinic will get no state funds, consistent with a ban imposed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Soon after its inception, the Environmental Law Clinic angered state legislators in northwestern Pennsylvania by representing an environmental group opposed to logging in the Allegheny National Forest. Other lawmakers criticized the clinic for representing opponents of the Mon-Fayette Expressway construction project.

Last summer, state legislators led by Sen. Joseph Scarnati, R-Warren, added a line to Pitt's appropriation bill, stating that no state money could go to the Environmental Law Clinic. In response, the University administration began charging the clinic for overhead and administrative expenses at a rate that threatened to bankrupt it within a year, according to clinic director Thomas Buchele.

In the ensuing controversy, Pitt senior administrators said they'd had no legally defendable choice but to assess the clinic for its full overhead costs, using a federal formula commonly used for cost accounting of research grants — even though the state provides less than 20 percent of Pitt's budget, and the operating budget of the clinic itself came from a $2 million Heinz Foundation endowment.

The University Senate's tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC), after investigating the clinic issue, called the overhead charge "severe and perhaps idiosyncratic" and concluded that Pitt's administration infringed on the academic freedom of clinic personnel. Provost Maher and Chancellor Mark Nordenberg disputed "both the factual presentation and the conclusion" of TAFC's report.

Those discordant words seemed to be forgotten in the wake of last week's announcement that the clinic will stay put.

"This is a great day for the University of Pittsburgh, and I congratulate the senior administration for doing the right thing," said TAFC chairperson Herbert Needleman.

University Senate President James Cassing said: "I couldn't be more pleased with the outcome. A number of people, but in particular the chancellor and some of our other senior administrators, deserve a lot of credit for taking a position that probably won't be popular with everybody, including some people in the state legislature."

"Everybody should be really proud of the University of Pittsburgh," said Environmental Law Clinic director Buchele. "Everyone who criticized the University administration should now write a letter congratulating them."

Was Buchele, an outspoken critic of the administration in recent months, including himself among the letter-writers?

"Oh, yes," he replied. "I'm always willing to admit when somebody does the right thing. I was critical of the Pitt administration. But in light of the ultimate outcome, how we got here is basically irrelevant. I'm planning to focus on where we are, not where we've been."

William Luneburg, who directs Pitt's certificate program in environmental law and who serves on the law school's clinic committee, called the resolution of the Environmental Law Clinic issue "the best that could possibly have been reached from the point of view of our students, the clients of the clinic, and the community at large."

Michael Parker, vice president of the Environmental Law Council, a student organization, said he and other students were "very happy" with the decision to keep the clinic in-house.

"There was a lot of concern among the students I had talked to, especially first-year students. They were pretty upset at the thought that the clinic would be leaving campus," said Parker. "They had come to Pitt because of that clinic and because they were interested in environmental law."

Caren Glotfelty, director of environmental programs for the Heinz Endowments, said her employers "are very happy that the University administration and the faculty of the law school and the Environmental Law Clinic were able to come to this agreement."

She noted that the Heinz Endowments had not opposed spinning off the clinic as a separate organization, provided such an arrangement would have guaranteed academic freedom while maintaining educational opportunities for law students and legal services for environmental groups.

"Keeping the Environmental Law Clinic within the University setting is probably the best way to meet those principles, however, so we're very happy with this arrangement," Glotfelty said.

She added that the Heinz Endowments "were not asked for, nor did we make, any additional grant commitments. I'm not aware of where the additional funding came from."

Neither were Buchele and Luneburg. "I have my theories, but I don't know for certain," Luneburg said.

Provost Maher, who knows, wasn't saying. "I'm not going to say anything about the source of the funding other than, it's not state money," he said.

At least some of the money will come from the law school's discretionary funds, according to Robert Hill, vice chancellor for Public Affairs.

Maher downplayed the senior administration's role in settling the Environmental Law Clinic issue. "I've been saying from the outset that this was an issue for the School of Law to resolve," the provost said. "It was turned into a public circus, but it was always an issue that the school had to address, and now they have addressed it.

"There was never any question of closing the clinic," Maher pointed out. "The school had made a preliminary announcement that they were probably going to create an outside corporation that would house the clinic. Now they've decided they can do it better in-house."

The provost said he endorsed that plan. He added that the law school does not need to submit a formal proposal to the senior administration.

–Bruce Steele

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