Readers Respond

Point-Counterpoint on

The Appalachian School of Law


In the last edition of Bacon’s Rebellion (“Law Schools and Baseball Stadiums?October 4, 2003 ) I asked what people in Southwest Virginia were thinking when they funded the Appalachian School of Law. Did Virginia, I queried, really need more lawyers? Does a law school, I wondered, contribute to the long-term economic competitiveness of this mountainous region? Would it not have made more sense, I suggested, to have invested the same resources in promoting R&D and product innovation in a leading industry such as mining machinery and services?


Well, I found out what they were thinking. Two written responses are worthy of being quoted in full. But they also raise issues, which I will address below.


First this:


I just read your article about the Appalachian School of Law and how senseless it was of the people of Southwest Virginia to think that their community may benefit from forming an institution of higher learning. 


I graduated from ASL in 2002. I was not from Southwest Virginia, but chose to attend ASL to earn my law degree. I am not the minority. If you would have done a little bit of research, you would have learned that only a very small percentage of students at ASL are from Southwest Virginia. The rest have moved to the area, where they pay rent, buy homes, groceries, cars, clothes, etc. Also, if you had made a few phone calls, it would have been easy to obtain statistics on the effect that ASL has had on the local community. The figures were in the millions before the school even reached capacity. The school now boasts over 300 students. 


Instead of knocking a community that had the gumption to try something different to get the economy going, maybe you should applaud them on their innovation. Go to Grundy and look around. See the impact the school has had on the community. 


I know that you could probably care less about ASL or Southwest Virginia and you write articles only for the sake of writing them. But, if you are truly concerned for the citizens of Southwest Virginia, then put some work into your articles and see what is really happening. These people need to be applauded, not chastised. You've got this wrong and I challenge you to correct your mistake.


J. Todd Ross


Kingsport, TN 37664


Saving substantive comments for below, I would interject only that I very much do care about the people of Southwest Virginia. I spent four years covering the coal industry for the Roanoke Times in the early 1980s and have made numerous trips back to the region since then. I made many friends there and maintain many of those friendships still. My aim is not to belittle the efforts of the people to improve their lot but to stimulate thinking by providing a friendly and well-meaning outsider’s perspective.


And then this:


I just read your piece on what you proclaim to be the folly of Grundy. I have served on a board at the Appalachian School of Law since its inception and have taught there. It is a truly remarkable institution that serves an underserved region. Yes, there are no law schools in the Appalachian region, at least not the southern portion of it. And none of the Virginia law schools you mention has curricula whose aim is to train attorneys for the meat and potatoes practices of small-town Appalachia or elsewhere. Rather, the Virginia law schools to the east of us by and large lust for the bright lights of big-firm corporate-type practices in places like NY, DC, Atlanta and Houston. The sort of law that is practiced here, and in much of small-town America, is simply off their radar screens. The only exception to this may be Pat Robinson’s Regent University School of Law, which many prospective students shun because of the religious orientation imposed on the school by its founder.

Meanwhile, Buchanan County seems quite pleased, thank you, with its offspring. I say this because it was announced yesterday that plans are being made for a new 300-student pharmacy school in Grundy, to capitalize on the success of the law school there. And, a few months ago, at an ASL meeting, I was shown preliminary drawings for a multi-college higher education center proposed for construction behind the law school. It would be a smaller version of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, and we were told several colleges then had expressed interest in offering courses in this proposed center.

Frank Kilgore, a Wise County attorney and creative thinker, appears to be the man behind the pharmacy school, much like another innovative Wise County attorney, Joe Wolfe, was the person who had the idea for the law school (and donated a cool $1 million of his personal funds to help get it started). I think it was a Buchanan County supervisor who was quoted in yesterday’s Roanoke Times as saying they would like to change the economy of their county from one that relies on extractive industries to one based on knowledge-based industries. And Kilgore chimed in with a statement to the effect that the jobs and spin-off benefits of a pharmacy school will not flee overseas after a few years.

Also, the mining equipment industry, which you glorify, is closing shop in our region in droves. No one has suggested that more technology or better ideas would help them stay in business here. Their market simply is drying up. The most recent was Joy Mining Equipment whose Abingdon plant will close about the 17th of this month. That plant, which I know fairly well, has made very sophisticated long-wall miners and Joy is one of the most revered names in mining machinery. Neither of these was enough to keep Joy in this business, at least not here.

Investing in George Mason University rather than a baseball stadium well may make sense for NOVA. And with its VCU connection, I can see how it is possible that Richmond would benefit more from a new arts academy than an upscale performing arts center. But I strongly question whether you got it right for Southwest Virginia. None of the best and most innovative minds here, including those involved in the coal mining business and the economics of this region, has even suggested what you declared to be a certainty. That tells me something.

Jackson S. White, Jr.
The White Law Office
Abingdon, VA


Let me credit my correspondents at the outset for illuminating aspects of the law school that I did not fully appreciate when I wrote the column two weeks ago. Clearly, the Appalachian School of Law is doing the right thing by instructing students in a kind of law – small-town practice – that the larger law schools ignore. Equally clearly, the school has been successful in attracting students from outside the region. Thus, it has become, in economic parlance, a primary industry – providing services to customers from outside the region, or providing services locally that Southwest Virginians would have had to go elsewhere to obtain. Bringing economic activity into the region is vastly preferable to investing in projects, as many communities do, that simply shuffle economic activity from one location within the region to another.


Also, I will concede, the pharmacy school initiative is news to me. I presume that, as with the law school, the curriculum will be geared to pharmacy practices in smaller communities and, will be designed, like the law school, to attract students from outside the region. Thus, the program would address a real need – the local shortage of pharmacists – while creating another primary industry.


Southwest Virginia’s investment in a knowledge-

intensive industry like education represents a dramatic break from past thinking and is to be applauded. No one was thinking remotely like this 20 years ago when I was writing about mine worker strikes and strip mining. I did not sufficiently acknowledge in my last column the importance of this fundamental change in philosophy. My bad. Twenty lashes.


However, Misters Ross and White miss the larger point that I was making:


Investing in knowledge creation is good. But investing in knowledge creation that leverages a prominent local industry is even better.


Southwest Virginia will never become a major center of legal practice the way, say, Washington, D.C., is, or, on a smaller scale, even Richmond is. It will never become a major pharmaceutical center. Institutions for the instruction of law and pharmacy do ensure that the region is well supplied with lawyers and pharmacists -- no small thing -- but do nothing to build any primary industry other than the schools themselves. Furthermore, they do nothing to leverage the existing businesses and human capital in the region.


Mining in Virginia’s thinning coal seams may be in irreversible decline. Mine machinery manufacturing may be in retreat – talk about bad timing, I was unaware also of Joy Machinery’s decision to close its Abingdon facility. But there still are numerous companies active in coal mining, equipment manufacturing, distribution and supply, engineering, geology and services, and the region still possesses a deep reservoir of skills in these fields, not to mention access to the incomparable department of mining engineering nearby at Virginia Tech. And, though local markets for these skills may be shrinking, the global market for them is growing.


By failing to invest in its primary industry, I would argue, community leaders of Southwest Virginia are writing off the greatest economic assets their region possesses. While coal mining in Virginia may be unsalvageable, I’m not convinced that mining services are in irreversible decline. If Southwest Virginia, backed by the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, Virginia Tech and other state agencies made the commitment, the region could, perhaps, become a center for R&D, product innovation and services related to underground coal mining – an industry that, in the obsession with “high tech” industries, every other state and region in the country has largely written off.


Finally, let me stress, I am not -- repeat, not, not, not -- singling out Southwest Virginia for faulty thinking. As noted in my last column, I’m dismayed by community boosters across the state who support projects reflecting no discernible strategic thought whatsoever, the latest excrescence being the competition between Richmond and Virginia Beach for the biggest, baddest convention center. The difference is that the Richmond and Hampton Roads economies have greater depth than Southwest Virginia's; they can survive a bout of extravagant foolishness. My friends in Virginia’s coalfields have no such luxury. If they don't get it right the first time, they may not get a second chance.


-- October 20, 2003









Letter Writer


J. Todd Ross


Jackson S. White