Vermont Law and Graduate School announces new environmental programs

Beth McCormack, interim president and dean of Vermont Law School, left, speaks during a news conference in Burlington, where the school announced a new strategic direction in June. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The newly rebranded Vermont Law and Graduate School – formerly known as the Vermont Law School – has announced the formation of its new Vermont School for the Environment to expand its graduate program offerings.

Two new graduate programs will be housed at the school: a Masters in Climate and Environmental Policy and a Masters in Animal Welfare Policy.

Two existing programs, a Masters in Energy Regulation and Law and a Masters in Food and Agricultural Law, will also be transferred to the new school.

“Students have the opportunity to study public policy, while other schools might have general policy degrees where you might be able to take a couple of environmental courses,” said Jennifer Rushlow, who will serve as dean of the new Vermont School for the Environment. “Every part of our policy program is permeated and focused on climate change and environmental justice – the most cutting edge and relevant environmental issues that people who want to make a difference need to study.”

The Masters in Animal Welfare Policy builds on the school’s existing Animal Law and Policy program and will benefit from the creation of a new Livestock Counseling Clinic and Institute for Animal Law and Policy. It will explore animal science and animal ethics, Rushlow said.

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The climate and environmental policy program, Rushlow said, focuses on climate change and environmental justice through the lens of politics. Vermont Law School’s environmental program has been around long enough, she said, that its leaders “are able to see how environmental protection has changed over time.”

“We’re really using that experience to shape this new degree around the issues and skills incoming students need to go out and make the change for the environment and communities they want to make,” she said.

That’s a lot of people these days, she said. Executives anticipate that expanding the program will be a growth point for the school and will fill a need that comes with an increasing number of sustainability-focused jobs.

Vermont Law School has long had a reputation for having one of the best environmental law programs in the country and has been named as such by several ranking systems, including US News & World Report.

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In recent years, the school felt a rumble of rebellion after a former dean stripped a faculty of his term, a move that followed a drop in enrollments. In recent US news rankings, the school’s environmental rights program fell to fifth place nationally.

Rushlow said the vision for the environmental school came about after a strategic planning process involving the entire faculty, staff, administration and board of directors.

“Our conclusion was that this institutional design and structure hits the sweet spot to sustain a strong Young Women’s program from which we are not taking anything away while building on this area where we already have a strong foundation and where we see opportunity see for more growth — what’s in these really focused and rigorous master’s degrees,” she said.

David Mears, who is now executive director of Audubon Vermont and vice president of the National Audubon Society, was formerly the associate dean of environmental programs at the Vermont Law School and director of the school’s Environmental Law Center.

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Mears left Vermont Law School in the summer of 2018, around the time tensions were running high at the school, when the law school “treated longtime faculty — and many of the environmental schools — pretty badly under the guise of budget cuts. ” he said.

Mears is excited about the addition of the new undergraduate and graduate programs, saying it is an opportunity for students to study the intersection of the environment, social justice and democracy.

“I thought there was a time when law school divested into environmental programs in a way that worried me,” he said. “I think they’ve realized the flaw in that approach and are moving back in the direction they should be.”

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