There are small towns, and then there are smaller towns. But South Royalton, Vermont is actually a village of about 700 folks within the town of Royalton. Now, South Royalton may be small but it is also home to an extraordinarily special institution: Vermont Law and Graduate School. (Vermont Law also has a second home, up the road a piece in the big city of Burlington.)
VLGS is different from most law schools in a number of ways. First and foremost, it has a singular focus which they describe as “harnessing the momentum and intersectionality of environmentalism and justice reform.” Its Environmental Law Center is home to one of the largest and most highly-ranked environmental law programs in the country.
VLGS is also a stand-alone law school, not a school that is part of a university. That is quite unusual, particularly since it is Vermont’s only law school. Most recently, VLGS has begun to offer a hybrid (online and in-person) JD program, another rare attribute, which enrolled 80 students this fall. For an institution with a total enrollment of less than 500, that’s impressive.
I graduated from law school in 1978 and there was nothing about the University of Pennsylvania Law School (now the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School) that was warm and welcoming. The feel of VLGS is the exact opposite. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a serious place, ABA-accredited, and its graduates go on to great careers. Yet it also feels like a home to its faculty, staff and students. Dean McCormack was my tour guide, after I met jointly with her and President Smolla. Almost every student we passed on the tour gave the Dean a warm hello and she knew each of them by name.
VLGA’s campus is located along the White River in a cluster of some 19 buildings, mostly small and quaint. Students were tucked together into corners of those buildings and spread out across the many lawns between and among them. And they were smiling – not a feeling I remember experiencing in my three years of law school.
While we were talking, a first-year student came racing across the lawn to greet me. It turns out Isabella remembered me from her undergraduate days at Oglethorpe University, where I served as President for fifteen years. That pretty much made my day!
VLGS doesn’t tend to make the evening news and that’s probably a good thing. But a few years ago, it did achieve national renown with a controversy that erupted over a mural in one of its most prominent buildings. Fittingly, the case presented complex and contradictory legal interpretations of the Visual Artists Rights Act and the First Amendment. The issue was resolved when the school was allowed to cover the mural rather than take it down or return it to the painter.
I had such an enjoyable visit at VLGS. With its current environmental mission and idyllic location, I firmly believe the institution will continue to be a leader in its field, no matter what the challenges.