University officials celebrate more than a decade of UMass Law with renovated atrium

Nov 19, 2021

A newly renovated atrium dedicated to two women who made significant contributions to the creation of UMass Law was unveiled Nov. 16 as part of the celebration of the tenth year anniversary of the school.

The lobby was dedicated to Chancellor Emerita Jean MacCormack and the late Margaret “MarDee” Xifaras, who died in 2019.

A keystone of the space, which has been renamed the “Arc of Justice Atrium,” features a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“This atrium and its art installations now truly reflect the excellence of UMass Law,”UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Mark Fuller said. “I know that it will inspire our students, faculty and staff for generations to come.”

The atrium consists of several art pieces by graduates from the university’s College of Visual & Performing Arts, in addition to three pieces completed by Mattapoisett artist John Magnan, who graduated from UMass Dartmouth in 1999.

MacCormack, who served as the Dartmouth campus’ chancellor between 1999 and 2012, contributed roughly $350,000 toward the renovation and said she wanted the entry “to not just be a space, but to become a place — a destination.”

“The fact she would put up her own money shows her lifelong commitment to higher education — she’s inspiring,” UMass President Marty Meehan said.

Along with celebrating renovations, officials also commemorated just how much the school has developed since opening more than a decade ago.

The law school was established by unanimous vote of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education in 2010 after the Southern New England School of Law donated all of its assets, including its 75,000 square foot building and 8.5-acre property, to UMass system.

A previous attempt had been made in 2006, but MacCormack said then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration rejected the idea of a public law school due to “pressure from private law schools.”

At the time, she noted, Massachusetts was one of six states in the nation that did not have a public law school.

“We live in a state with prestigious private institutions that are fabulous,” MacCormack said. “But our vision was to have a school that was affordable and diverse.”

While trying to secure the school, MacCormack said she and Xifaras, whom she said dealt with the politicians, were constantly criticized and told “you’ll never get anyone to go there, you’ll never get accreditation — you’ll never be able to do anything.” 

“Well, we’ve done all those things,” MacCormack said.

In the past five years alone, Eric Mitnick, the dean of the law school, noted that admissions at the Faunce Corner Road school have nearly doubled from 186 in 2016 to 365 students for this fall semester.

Students have also conducted more than 150,000 hours of pro-bono work for clients around the region.

“It’s been quite a leap forward,” Mitnick said. “Without MarDee Xifaras's passionate and tireless efforts, there would not have been a Southern New England Law School to become UMass Law. And without Jean MacCormack's powerful and compelling vision, we would not have become the first public law school in the over 240-year history of the Commonwealth.”

Meehan also thanked MacCormack and Xifaras for their hard work in securing the school those years ago. 

He added that Xifaras “would be so proud” of how far the school has come.

Xifaras’ daughter, Dena Xifaras, agreed.

“She would be in the back smiling quietly with an inner pride about this special place,” she said. “This physical space, adorned with art, is such a fitting dedication to mom’s legacy.”

With the newly renovated atrium, university officials are looking toward an even brighter future at the law school.

“There is a legacy here that is still being built,” MacCormack said. “They will learn that the arc of justice is long, but we must bend it toward justice — it does not bend on its own.”