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Sunday, July 07, 2013

Oulde Fields, New Corn-cerns

I've been on the road this week with my family, so I apologize for not having said anything yet about the resignation of my dean, Ken Randall, or his new position at InfiLaw. I've seen a couple of comments elsewhere suggesting that this deserved more attention than it had gotten so far. I think that's quite right. (On both sides. I was surprised that the scamblog types didn't write more about it this week as well.) In any event, given that I teach at Alabama and have written some about law school issues, it seemed right that I should say something, at least. Some added reason for doing so certainly is supplied by Paul Campos's post about this, which I heard about at The Faculty Lounge. As usual, I think he makes a good and legitimate point among several weaker ones.

I view the two things--Ken's resignation and his new job--distinctly. My colleagues have already laid on the praise elsewhere. I'll try to give some particulars rather than offer another general encomium. On a professional level, Ken was a tremendously successful dean at Alabama, certainly by the conventional and contestable measures but also by most others. In particular, given that most of our graduates stay in the southeast and don't go to megafirms, I'm glad that tuition and class sizes have remained relatively low. He has also done great things in terms of personal contact with students, faculty hiring (obviously I have a bias here), fundraising in the face of declining state funding, relations with the larger university, attention to detail, and strongly improving the reputation (and ranking) of the law school. He's been innovative, resourceful, and entrepreneurial in a host of ways. Any innovation or entrepreneurial moves are always open to question and discussion, but I think he has done so in a way that respects both our students' needs and interests and our academic mission. In general I think it's fair to conclude that he's done as good or better a job than deans at his peer schools have, and I'm very grateful. On a personal level, I always found him to be very energetic, supportive of my work and needs, and kind to my family. I sincerely appreciate it.

Ken has been interested in entrepreneurship and venture capital for a while, and began teaching in that area a few years ago. (That's why I didn't set much store in any rumors about why he stepped down. He's been dean for a very long time, and has been interested in new challenges for a while.) I have no personal knowledge here, but I assume that the InfiLaw venture is a way of developing that interest while still getting the benefit of his considerable professional experience in legal education.

I hope and assume that in his new position he'll try to balance innovation with considerations of student needs and core educational mission. And, provided there's institutional diversity and a core of traditionally functioning schools out there, I'm not a purist about what higher education should look like or whether profit-seeking can or can't be a part of that. But, like everyone else, I worry, if I may put it gently, that the InfiLaw consortium schools educate too many at too much cost for too few prospects. I sincerely wish Ken the best in this and any other venture, but I still worry about these things a lot. Those concerns aren't unique to for-profit schools, but they're certainly highly pertinent in their case.

Like I said, I view the two things distinctly. All of us who have worked with Ken are grateful for our time with him and think he deserves praise for his deanship. I wish him well at InfiLaw. But I do harbor general concerns about that venture, concerns that have nothing to do with his own role in it. My hope if anything is that if anyone can, he will find better ways to balance student needs against investors' interests in such an enterprise. But I worry about how well those schools have done so thus far.

Given Ken's success at Alabama, and his move from a traditional public university to an unconventional venture, I think anyone who thought this move deserved more commentary--including expressions of doubt or criticism--was right. Whether it's good or bad, it is certainly noteworthy. I can't say whether it carries a deeper message for law schools or "law school crisis" issues in general. It may, but there's some reason to doubt it. Ken had a preexisting interest in entrepreneurial work and venture capital; this move may be more about developing his own interests than about anything systemic. But it's still noteworthy.

To that extent, I think Campos was quite right to call attention to it, and so were some recent commenters on The Faculty Lounge. We've now had enough time to commend Ken for his performance in his old job, and it's not untoward at this point to concern ourselves with his new one. And if such a move is worth noting, I certainly think there must be room for criticism--of the move, or of InfiLaw itself, or some combination.

On the other hand, most of us who worked with Ken were still processing his departure from Alabama, and expressing appreciation for his work there, before we'd had much of a chance to learn or say anything about the InfiLaw position. To the extent that Campos's post elides events, makes it seem as if the folks who were praising Ken were making a statement about his new job rather than giving him his due for two decades in his last job, and follows his custom of casting himself as Diogenes, it is misleading if not false. And I think those of us who worked with Ken and believe he did a great job as dean would feel awkward about trying to hit both notes at the same time: acknowledging our relationship with him and praising his work to date, but still registering our preexisting doubts about whether many law schools, emphatically including for-profit ones, are benefiting their students. It takes a long-winded Canadian to try to do both, diplomatically, in a single post. (Although I did try to keep my sentences shorter, for once.)

Still, I do think the two events are distinct. Praising Dean Randall for his work at Alabama doesn't require us to have no concerns about InfiLaw. Having doubts about InfiLaw doesn't require us to be silent about Ken's many accomplishments to date. That people who worked with him over two decades made our appreciation known this week shouldn't be cause for surprise or criticism. But the fact that he went from that job to this very different new venture is certainly noteworthy. It's fair if that includes concern or criticism.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 7, 2013 at 03:49 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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