A Strong Case for Progress
Some Groundbreaking Developments for WNEC’s Law School
Arthur Gaudio took his pen and started tapping on features showcased in an architectural rendering of the $5.5 million, 10,500-square-foot addition and accompanying renovations to the Western New England College School of Law, which he serves as dean.
He started with the front entrance, which is rather unremarkable as front entrances go, except for the direction it faces — toward the rest of the Wilbraham Road campus. Since the law school was incorporated onto that campus in 1978 after operating out of offices in downtown Springfield, Gaudio explained, it has faced Bradley Road, giving the school a touch of separation that was never really appropriate, and is far less so today.
Indeed, the new entrance and its configuration is a small but significant bullet point with regard to the expansion, the first since the 100,000-square-foot S. Prestley Blake Law Center opened its doors. It is a symbolic gesture, designed to show how the law school is collaborating with other departments within the college, said Gaudio, building synergies for the betterment of both institutions.
“These include the Law and Business Center for Advancing Entrepreneurship, a joint Juris Doctor/MBA degree, a Biomedical Engineering/JD degree, and other initiatives,” he said, adding that, moving forward, more programs at the college will link with the law school in some way. “From a figurative standpoint, our new front door shows greater integration with the college.”
All other features of the expansion and renovation are rooted in 21st-century legal education, or, more specifically, how it is different than the 20th- or 19th-century models. While the subject matter being taught is in many ways the same as it was years ago, the methods for teaching it are not. Modern classrooms must be equipped with the latest telecommunications technology, Gaudio explained, and the renovation efforts will enable the law school to accommodate both current innovations — and the next generation of them as well.
The law school project is the most ambitious capital project undertaken as part of Transformations: The Campaign for Western New England College, the largest fund-raising effort in the college’s history, said long-time WNEC President Anthony Caprio, noting that the campaign is more than $18 million toward its $20 million goal.
Thus, the start of construction at the Blake Center is just one of many ground-breaking developments at the college, he said.
Digging for Evidence
Tracing the history of the law school, Gaudio said it opened in 1919 as part of the Springfield division of Northeastern University. Classes were small, some with as few as three people, he explained, and they were held in several locations downtown, including the old YMCA.
Incorporated as the Western New England College School of Law in 1951, the institution remained downtown for the next 20 years. In the early ’70s, school leaders decided to bring the law school to the Wilbraham Road campus and launched a capital campaign for the facilities. The school operated out of a building on Tinkham Road in the years before the Blake center opened its doors.
Talk about expansion of that facility began seven years ago, said Caprio, and centered mostly on the library and the need to make it a larger, more efficient facility. In more recent years, he explained, it became clear that other components, especially classrooms, needed to be modernized.
As he talked about the expansion and renovations, Gaudio stressed repeatedly that the school itself isn’t getting bigger — meaning from the standpoint of enrollment.
He said the college placed caps on enrollment several years ago — although there has been a surge in applications over the past five years even as numbers have dipped at other institutions — in an effort to maintain high standards for the school, which recently earned top marks at its most recent accreditation.
In fact, it was re-accredited unconditionally, which is rare, said Gaudio, and no doubt a reflection of both programmatic changes that have been made in recent years and blueprints for a larger law center.
Elaborating, he said the project, which will essentially add a floor to the Blake building, is designed to better serve students, give faculty members better and more modern facilities in which to teach and mentor students, and give several facilities and programs an opportunity to grow and better serve those utilizing them.
At the top of this list is the law school library, which will be expanded to become what Gaudio called a “fully integrated information center” that would serve current students, faculty, and the community as a whole. More than 60% of the lawyers working in Hampden County are graduates of WNEC law, he said, and many make use of the school’s law library.
The planned renovations will expand the library’s footprint, said Gaudio, noting that all administrative offices, including admissions, will be relocated into the addition, providing several thousand more square feet for the library. But, in essence, the project will remove the library’s walls, from a physical standpoint, and make the Blake building as a whole a learning and research center.
“The edge of the library is no longer the edge of the library — it’s the edge of the building,” he said, adding that, through wireless technology, students will be able to access information digitally. “We’re expanding the places where you can receive library information and materials, thus allowing people the opportunity to advance their education.”
Beyond the expansion and streamlining of library facilities and operations, the law school project, designed by Tessier & Associates, with Fontaine Brothers serving as general contractor, will also focus on classrooms, said Gaudio, and specifically the school’s commitment to small, 50-student teaching sections and the new era of information technology in which learning takes place.
This means that some of the current classrooms will be refurbished and made smaller, while others will undergo similar modernization and made larger.
“When this building opened, professors used the standard whiteboard at the front of the room; they talked, and students took notes,” Gaudio explained. “We’re moving from notebook paper and pen to notebook computer and mouse, and we are accommodating all the technology that people use to teach now — from PowerPoint to online materials.
“We’re coming up to date,” he continued, “but we’re doing more than that — we’re looking down the road and anticipating what we’ll need to stay on the cutting edge in legal education.”
The renovated Law Center will also house the College’s Law and Business Center for Advancing Entrepreneurship, a joint effort of the college’s law school and School of Business that has been housed at the Scibelli Enterprise Center at Springfield Technical Community College since it opened in 2005.
The entrepreneurship center works with area small business owners by linking them with law and business students who act as unpaid consultants, providing assistance with everything from choosing a business entity to writing a business plan.
The larger facilities, located right on campus, will enable the center to serve more start-up and small businesses, said Caprio. “It will help furnish the best foundation to sustain their companies,” he said, “while developing them into thriving commercial enterprises, and contribute to a new era of economic and social prosperity for the region.”
As he looked closely at the architectural rendering, Gaudio noticed that someone had somehow placed his face on one of the ‘people’ who appear in the drawing.
Laughing off this development, sort of, he said he doesn’t mind being the face of the law school’s expansion and renovation.
The real face, however, is the new front door, which has the law school looking in a new direction — literally and figuratively.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]