Vermont Law and Graduate School announces new environmental programs

As it looks to broaden its graduate degree offerings, the newly rebranded Vermont Law and Graduate School — formerly known as Vermont Law School — has announced the creation of its new Vermont School for the Environment.

Two new graduate degree programs will be housed in the school: a master’s of climate and environmental policy and a master’s of animal protection policy.

Two existing programs, a master’s of energy regulation and law and a master’s of food and agriculture law, will also move over to the new school.

“Students have options for studying public policy, whereas other schools might have generic policy degrees, where you can take a couple of environmental classes, if that,” said Jennifer Rushlow, who will serve as dean of the new Vermont School for the Environment. “Every part of our policy program is infused and concentrated on climate change and environmental justice — the most modern and relevant environmental issues that people who want to make change need to study.”

The master’s of animal protection policy builds on the school’s existing animal law and policy program and will benefit from the creation of a new farmed animal advocacy clinic, as well as a new Animal Law and Policy Institute. It will explore animal science and animal ethics, Rushlow said.

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

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

These days, that’s a lot of people, she said. Leaders expect the expansion program to be a point of growth for the school, filling a need that comes along with increasing numbers of sustainability-focused jobs.

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

In more recent years, the school felt rumblings of turmoil after a former dean stripped tenure from some faculty, a move that followed a drop in enrollment. In recent US News rankings, the school’s environmental law program fell to the fifth spot nationally.

Rushlow said the vision for the environmental school was created following a strategic planning process that involved the full faculty, staff, administration and board.

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

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

Mears left Vermont Law School in the summer of 2018, around the time that tensions at the school ran high, when the law school treated “long-standing faculty — and a lot of the environmental faculty — pretty poorly under the guise of budget cutting, he said.

Mears is excited about the addition of the new school and graduate programs, and said it’s a chance for students to study the intersection of the environment, social justice and democracy.

“There was a period of time in which the law school, I thought, was disinvesting in environmental programs in ways that were troubling to me,” he said. “I think that they’ve realized the error of that approach and are shifting back in the direction they should be going.”

Don’t miss a thing. Sign up here to get VTDigger’s weekly email on the energy industry and the environment.

Did you know VTDigger is a nonprofit?

Our journalism is made possible by member donations. If you value what we do, please contribute and help keep this vital resource accessible to all.