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UW Law School courts reconstruction

It’s been almost 50 years since the second version of the University of Wisconsin Law School was built on Bascom Hill.

While the current law school, in trying to keep up with the times, has undergone several facelifts since its construction in 1963, officials suggest that forthcoming changes could lead to discussions about a new building.

Under the current state budget proposal, the law school would become a public authority and a new dean will take over in the fall.

Those changes could prompt a conversation on whether the law school should explore construction of a new building sooner than later.

“A new law school could be a priority for the new dean, and we’ll see what the realities are if the UW-Madison system becomes a public authority and there is a paradigm shift in how major projects are handled,” said Associate Dean for Administration Bethany Pluymers.

She and others said they would love to have a new law school akin to Eckstein Hall, the $80 million home of Marquette Law School, which opened last fall.

But realistically, budget constraints will only allow for modest updates, at most, in the near future. Pluymers didn’t anticipate a new law school for at least five years.

“We have some ideas, but we’re really waiting to hear what our unit reduction is going to be before do any expensing,” she said of future renovations. “That would just be irresponsible.”

The state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance is scheduled to discuss the budget proposals related to the UW system on March 31.

Gov. Scott Walker would have the University of Wisconsin-Madison split from the other 12 UW system schools and become a public authority. Given that the law school is under the administrative umbrella of UW-Madison, it would also likely split from the system, said Ken Davis, the school’s outgoing dean.

He said the shift would give the law school more budgetary and administrative flexibility.

However, Walker is also proposing a $125 million cut in state money for UW-Madison during the next two years. Davis said he isn’t sure to what extent the law school’s budget will be cut, but he expects around $500,000.

Throughout the last several years, technology updates to classrooms to include internet access, as well as a remodel of the law school cafe, were completed for about $1 million.

On tap for this summer is replacement of carpeting throughout the law school as well as plans to add a patio in the back of the building, although the latter is dependent on available money in the state budget

“Right now we’re at a point where it’s hard to expand because we are on the hill,” said law school building manager Josh Cutler. “Personally, I’d love to knock down the old school and build a new one someday, but the money is not there right now.”

The last major renovation done at the law school was in 1996 — a $16.5 million, three-year project to enclose the outdoor courtyard space between two sections of the law school.

The four-story Atrium, along with other renovations, increased the law school’s interior space from 93,000 to 138,000 square feet, including 21,000 square feet of remodeled existing space.

But short of demolishing the current law school, there is little room for additional expansion, Cutler said.

“Being all in one building, if we end up tearing it down it would take two or three years to rebuild,” he said. “That would make things pretty dysfunctional.”

Davis doesn’t envision the law school relocating, given its prime position and accessibility to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Plus, he said there is the historic element of remaining on Bascom Hill, where the original law school was constructed in 1893.

“It’s an iconic place and the location allows faculty and students to take advantage of other campus sites,” Davis said. “As a practical matter, we needed to remodel rather than build afresh.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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