Transformation: Renovations underway as UDM Law prepares for centennial


- Photos by Robert Chase

By Gar Willoughby
Legal News

On the cusp of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law’s centennial celebration (2012), monumental changes are occurring that will forever transform and further enhance the school’s reputation. The “UDM Law Renovation Initiative” is presently under way at the downtown campus. After three phases have been completed, the law school will barely resemble its former self, according to school officials.

Prior to the renovations, the UDM School of Law was in dire need of a fresh look. The school’s last major renovation took place in the mid 1970s. As a result, many law students had issues with that era’s cream colored floor tiles, out-of-date furniture, and all around institutional feel that some compared to a worn out Soviet government compound. 

“It was really frustrating,” shared recent UDM Law graduate Lee Powell Jr., now an attorney with Kitch, Drutchas, Wagner, Valitutti, & Sherbrook. “I was so proud to attend an excellent law school with esteemed professors and a family-like student body. The only thing that we lacked was a first-class facility.”Fortunately for past, present and future UDM Law students, changes are abound that will excite, surprise, and inspire even the most tech savvy attorney.

The driving force behind UDM Law’s structural facelift has been current dean, Lloyd Semple. But don’t tell Dean Semple the facility improvements are merely a “facelift.” The significant changes occurring at UDM Law have been in the works for a long time. Improvements regarding UDM Law’s campus have been mulled over for decades.  Former UDM Law Dean Mark Gordon was instrumental in launching the initial plans and in getting fund-raising efforts off the ground. In 2004, after retiring from Dykema-Gossett, Semple joined the UDM faculty, becoming dean in 2009
following the departure of Gordon for the presidency of Defiance College in Ohio.

As one of his first tasks as dean, Semple further developed the law school’s improvement and fund-raising initiative into a workable course of action. This course includes a three-tiered plan and additional improvements if funding can be secured. Thus far, Phase I and II have been completed, while Phase III is under way.   

Phase I: Completed during the summer of 2010, this phase included a total renovation of the cafeteria, student lounge, and atrium. The cafeteria now has a modernized kitchen, new chairs, tables, and flooring. Also new to the cafeteria are the treated windows that face Larned Avenue, replacing the former “claustrophobic basement” feeling with a more open academic collegiate setting. The student lounge still has a billiards table, but additionally has leather couches and chairs, new carpet, new paint, and a flat paneled television. The atrium’s acoustics have been significantly enhanced with an enormous canvas diorama/mural picturing downtown Detroit and the city’s waterfront. 

Phase II: Completed after the fall of 2010, this phase addressed UDM Law’s classroom needs. There was a total renovation of nine classrooms including a new “super” classroom that now seats up to 90 students.  Every classroom at UDM Law now has state-of-the-art and professor friendly “smart” podiums, flat screen televisions, new desks, seats, flooring, and redeveloped acoustics. Additionally, the entire school has been completely rewired for Wi-Fi laptop use. All of these renovations impressively took place during a 6-week schedule so that students and faculty would be inconvenienced as little as possible.

Phase III:  Currently under way, Phase III is addressing UDM Law students’ library and media needs. Renovations occurring on all four floors of the library include efficient compact text shelving, advanced electronic law collections, a new elevator, new carpet, new bathrooms, new lighting, and additional study rooms and study areas. The former computer lab is being transitioned from a “hot or cold temperature varying cram-box” into numerous tech stations throughout the library.

On May 15, the majority of the law school will be relocated to UDM’s Corktown campus Dental School so that the present lecture hall located in room 126 can be transformed into a Student Services and Welcoming Center. The library and cafeteria will remain open to house displaced administration and faculty in cubicles while their new offices are being prepared. Semple realizes there will be logistical challenges over the summer, but overall he can’t wait for the finished product.

“While the school is closed, we are going to develop something very special. The Student Services and Welcoming Center will house the majority of administration in one central location.  Additionally, the space is so vast that we will also be able to properly greet and show off our newly renovated school to prospective students and distinguished guests.”

Next on the Phase III list are new bathrooms, study-friendly lighting panels, thick wooden entryway doors, efficient elevators, and beautiful floor tiles throughout the school. Students and faculty will be safer with new building security and card locks.  Excited about the present and upcoming work to be done, Semple explained, “When we get finished, you won’t be able to recognize the place.”

While most third year UDM Law students will not get to experience the Phase III renovations, many are more than excited by the changes that already have taken place. Lauren Mathaw is especially enthusiastic.

“The changes are really nice,” Mathaw exclaimed. “We have flat panel TVs all over. But I am most excited about the bathrooms in the library. That was one of our biggest concerns.”

Agreeing with her classmate, Ashley Ciaffone added, “The new renovations are definitely a step in the right direction. The changes make the school look more professional and more inviting to stay around the school instead of leaving.”

Brooke Lites summed up the general feeling of many law students: “The changes have been phenomenal. The renovations are for the betterment of our Detroit community and they add nothing but prestige to the UDM Law name.”  

Though not officially labeled as “Phase IV,” additional renovations to the school are planed in the near future, according to Semple. 

“There are plans, if we can afford them, for a complete renovation of the Dean’s Suite.  We plan on completely reworking the entrance to the law school and courtyard. We are also developing new UDM Law signs to be placed in the front of and around the building.”

When asked about possible renovation to the UDM Law Clinics, Semple replied, “I completely realize the conditions our law clinic professors and students are working under. The work they do for the underprivileged citizens Detroit and the surrounding communities is amazing. The clinics will not be forgotten. It all comes down to raising more capital from donors and alumni.”

Semple was quick to provide credit to numerous donors and organizers of the UDM Law Renovation Initiative. In particular, he lent credit for much of the painstaking planning and implementation work to Cara Cunningham, UDM Law professor and chair of the Building Task Force. Cunningham believes the renovations will be advantageous to all UDM law students. 

“Overall, every student who attended UDM Law will benefit,” Cunningham said. “It benefits all students in terms of a stronger more memorable education experience.  Students have always known that UDM Law is a special place. Now with the state of the art classroom and building facilities, they can be even more proud of their diploma knowing they attended a first class learning institution which will be recognized for not only its in academic reputation but also its prideful sense of community.”

When UDM Law turns 100 next year, present students, faculty and alumni alike will be able to raise a toast to their school’s centennial while beaming with pride. The UDM Law community will be proud, knowing that their law school will be recognized not only for academic excellence, but also for raising the bar in technological and aesthetic standards.