After slogging through years of declining enrollment numbers, chronic budget shortfalls and many of the other dispiriting trends that have afflicted law schools across the nation, the University of Minnesota Law School is getting a welcome dose of relief.
Actually, that’s an understatement.
The $25 million donation from the Minneapolis-based Robina Foundation is the largest in the 129-year history of the law school, according to University President Eric Kaler, who announced the gift at a packed and sometimes giddy gathering at Walter F. Mondale Hall on Monday afternoon.
The bulk of the money — $23.5 million — will fund a permanent endowment at the school’s Center for New Americans, which was launched in 2013 to provide pro bono legal services to immigrants and refugees. Kaler characterized the fledgling center as “already the nation’s premier legal clinic on immigration issues.”
According to law school Dean Garry Jenkins, $1 million of Robina’s donation will be set aside to endow a clinical professorship at the center, while the remaining half million will go to student scholarships.
In recognition of the late James Binger, the former Honeywell CEO who established the Robina Foundation, the center has been re-christened as the “James H. Binger Center for New Americans.”
With the gift, Robina has now donated nearly $60 million to the law school, which is one of four entities that Binger designated as exclusive recipients of Robina’s grant making, said Kathleen Blatz, former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and the chair of Robina’s board of directors.
Unlike most foundations, Robina was founded on the premise that all its assets would be given away within 20 years, said Blatz said. “And with today’s gift we’re getting close to that goal,” she added.
Despite the timing, Blatz said the decision to make the donation was not driven by the current uproar over President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order that seeks to temporarily bar admissions of refugee and halt all travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. She said the Robina board committed to fund the endowment last summer but delayed its formal announcement as the final details were ironed out.
When former law school dean David Wippman originally approached Robina with the concept for the center in 2012, he requested a permanent endowment, Blatz said. In the end, the board decided to hold off until it could gather a few years of data to measure the center’s outcomes and efficacy.
Like the other speakers, Blatz praised the center’s “unique” model, which leverages formal partnerships with three nonprofits (the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, The Advocates for Human Rights, and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid) and three prominent law firms (Faegre Baker Daniels, Robins Kaplan, and Dorsey & Whitney) to pursue “impact litigation.”
Two years ago, the center made good on that goal when it prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court in what’s come to be known informally as the “Sock Case”
The center’s client — a lawful permanent resident from Tunisia named Moones Mellouli — had been deported as a result of a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia conviction in Kansas. In the weird wrinkle, the “paraphernalia” in question was Mellouli’s sock, where he had concealed four tablets of the prescription stimulant Adderall. Overturning the 8th Circuit, the 7-2 majority on the high court ruled that the Kansas drug paraphernalia law did not fall within a category of deportable offenses as defined by federal law.
Blatz said the impact of the case was illustrated to her when she recently visited a Hennepin County courtroom with her goddaughter, who was contemplating a career in the law. By pure serendipity, they dropped in on a criminal case where, Blatz said, the defense lawyer happened to cite Mellouli as the controlling law.
Ben Casper Sanchez, the center’s executive director, said he was humbled by the “historic endowment” which he said will let the center pursue its mission “to transform immigration law” for years to come.
He thanked the center’s nonprofit partners, as well as the three law firms, which he said had already contributed over $2 million in pro bono time and resources.
A 1997 graduate of the law school, Casper Sanchez was emotional at times as he discussed the center, saying that it provides law students with opportunities that “I could not have dreamed of when I went to law school here 20 years ago.”
Asked about the ongoing litigation over the Trump travel ban, Casper Sanchez said he was encouraged by the early rulings but declined to hazard a guess as the ultimate outcome.
Given the celebratory mood at Monday’s announcement, it was hardly a surprise that there was no discussion of the law school’s well-documented challenges, woes that include a 30 percent drop in first year admissions since 2010 and $13.9 million in budget shortfalls between 2013 and 2016.
But Casper Sanchez came close with his “call to action” directed at law students and prospective law students who are inspired by immigrants and refugees who have overcome huge obstacles to become American citizens.
“If you are one of these people and you want to make a difference by becoming a lawyer, do not let anyone talk you down or bring you down with cynicism. If you are idealistic, motivated and smart, follow your dreams, please reach out to us,” Casper Sanchez said. “Please apply to law school.”
The last line was elicited a robust round of applause.