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Friday, December 14, 2012

Decentering centers (more on law school sustainability and costs savings)

Law schools resist collaboration and efficiencies in scale economies where centers, institutes, and programes are concerned.  This resistance may be unwarranted in many circumstances.

The incentives to proliferate academic research centers are understandable, yet fundamentally self-serving.  A center on, say, health policy aims toward developing, nurturing, and disseminating theoretical and (especially) applied research to advantage knowledge and improve public policy.  It may help, say, Stanford, Chicago, or Northwestern, to have it located only at their law school.  But wouldn't the larger cause be better served by serious, sustained collaboration across institutions?  Even the most ambitious and resourced law schools will have a small fraction of, say, intellectual property or environmental law/policy experts.  But five law schools working together will have many more.  The advantages of sustained collaboration among well-configured institutions seem rather apparent.  And there seem to be rather palpable efficiencies -- and, critically, lower intra-institutional costs -- generated by such tactical collaboration.

Alas, centers, institutes, and programs are frequently (nearly always?) treated as local sinecures.  Faculty recruitment and retention drive many design and implementation choices.  And deans exhort their donors to, as Brian Wilson proclaims, be true to your school.

Where cost savings are a growing imperative, why not think imaginatively about cross-institutional synergies and cooperative endeavors?  Some of these enterprises may involve similarly ambitious schools; others may trade on the advantages of local knowledge and structure -- so, a consortium of, say, Chicago area or SF bay area schools working cooperatively on programs with tangible benefit to the area. 

Students, faculty, and the community benefit greatly from the work growing out of excellent research centers.  But how much of this benefit requires all the effort, energy, and money deployed within one law school's four walls?

(Cross-institutional curricula raises similar issues and is a variation on this theme, albeit a variation that deserves separate discussion).

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on December 14, 2012 at 11:44 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I believe Georgia State has been working with a number of the ethics-focused centers at law schools to facilitate collaboration, but I don't know that much about their efforts.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 15, 2012 9:59:38 AM

Here are two good reason NOT to support this "collaboration" idea:

Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, 1776) wrote:

I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices…. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.

Posted by: Jimbino | Dec 15, 2012 11:28:53 AM

It's easier than ever to collaborate on legal research across schools. But I think a strong center can have a lot of benefits for students. The course offerings are more varied and better staffed, and there are more opportunities to work with professors on a narrow topic within the field. Over time, the center may develop relationships with firms, companies, or government agencies that provide employment pipelines for graduates. Vic Fleischer makes some persuasive points in this regard in his article on specialization:


Posted by: Matt Bodie | Dec 15, 2012 12:02:15 PM

Yes, indeed, centers/institutes pay dividends for students. Say more, Matt, about why these benefits could not be achieved by cross-institutional collaboration?

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Dec 15, 2012 12:09:12 PM

Well, if you have three national law schools collaborating equally on, say, antitrust research, then students at one of those schools only have access to 1/3 of the professors in that "center." But if you put all the profs into one school, then students have access to all of them, and there are more course offerings, note advisors, specialized conferences, etc. Even if three regional law schools were to collaborate on a center, you'd still lose some of the synergies from putting all the folks under one roof. Perhaps you've had a different experience, but it's hard to get students and even professors to venture out from their home institution, even if it's a twenty minute drive across town. It's not impossible, but it's not the same as having the people all in one place, either.

I agree that some centers can just be placeholders, having the name but not the substance. But assuming you have a core group of profs, administrators, and students, I think a one-institution center would be more vibrant than a cross-institutional one. Of course, the more resources that go to specialization, the less breadth of coverage the school has. So perhaps the answer is cross-institutional collaboration to fill in each other's gaps. Your students can come to my school for classes on antitrust, and mine can come to yours for environmental law. Add in distance learning, and you might be able to do this on a national scale. That, I think, is the allure of specialization: getting a reputation for excellence that draws people from around the nation and even the world. But it's hard to pull off.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Dec 16, 2012 8:01:36 AM

Dan, interesting set of questions. This may be in part driven by the example you chose, a health law center (and it may be parochial since I am a director of one of them at Harvard, http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/petrie-flom/) but I think you understate many of the benefits of "localizing" centers. First, centers can play an important role in connecting the law school to other parts of the SAME university, which would be much less feasible for national center. Harvard's health policy and bioethics folks are split across more than 7 professional schools and the college, and without a common meeting place like the Petrie-Flom Center we would have much fewer opportunities to bring non-law folks into law conversations for which their expertise are central. Second, health law centers are often homes for grant-funded projects from NIH and other funders that may involve law and non-law people (don't get me started on some of the difficulties of combining soft and hard money folks on projects...) and a center that is at a specific law school is necessary for office of sponsored research and other forms of review of grants, as well as rules about coordinating such grants across a university. Third, a center located at a particular law school is better able to exploit synergies with other centers/programs at the law school. For example, our center has co-programmed with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Human Rights Program, the Program on the Legal Profession, our Health Law and Policy Clinic, and other Harvard Law centered institutions. While possible for a multi-site center, such collaborations would be more difficult. Fourth, even if a center is sited in a particular law school, I think you underestimate its ability to draw together faculty from other school. We run a bi-weekly workshop for our students (offered as a course cross-enrollable by students at other Harvard grad schools) where we invite folks doing health law, bioethics, or biotechnology work be they in law, medical, public health or business schools, economics, philosophy departments, etc. Not only are the presenters from across the world, but many Boston area law faculty (from BU, Northeastern, etc) attend it. Fifth, even centers that are sited in one university can and do collaborate with other universities that have their own centers on programs. We have done stuff with Vanderbilt, have something planned with Yale, and a new project involving Stanford and Duke. Sixth, Center leadership is often given some kind of incentive (salary, teaching relief, a source of summer support) that would be more complex for multi-sited centers and involve many more kinds of decanal coordination and fund transfers. The same is true for the staff of the center, including admin support.
Again, some of this may be unique to the health law world (where the need to tie together disparate parts of the same university is the true low hanging fruit). And I think there are also some clear downsides to single-university centers and I think it would be great to see more experimentation in form. All I want to say is that there are also a number of good reasons to single-site centers that I am not sure your original post fully recognizes.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Dec 16, 2012 10:13:59 AM

One question to be addressed is what role should centers play in this era of declining student enrollments? If a center's programs can provide a student with valuable theoretical knowledge and practical experience that will help a student in the marketplace, than the center may make the host law school more attractive to potential students. However, if a school hosts multiple centers, some of which drain resources away from the core curriculum, than one might begin to question the wisdom of any particular law school hosting 5-6 centers-especially if the school depends heavily on student tuition and state aid to sustain its budget. It is not clear to me that the existence of certain centers draw enough new potential students to a school to justify their administrative cost. That cost is not merely the cost of additional personnel, but also the cost of having faculty members teach small class that appeal to the center's interests rather than larger courses that help carry the school. Additionally, it appears that some centers are driven primarily by faculty interest, rather than by student demand. That is fine in a world in which grant funding can sustain a center. I am not sure how feasible it is to create cross-institutional centers outside large cities that host multiple law schools. What is feasible however is to make an attempt to do a cost/benefit analysis on existing and proposed centers that uses data that is more reliable than vague projections of student interest.

Posted by: Shawn Boyne | Dec 17, 2012 8:28:01 AM

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