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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Just How Good Are Non-Religious Law Schools?

Jason's posts, however many qualms I may have about them, continue to be thought-provoking, and his latest post , about BYU Law School, is no exception.  What has me thinking this time is the anonymous commenter who notes the "religious homogeneity" of BYU, which I am assuming is accurate, and adds, "I guess there should be places for people who are really into religious homogeneity. That homogeneity, which I admit to finding a little creepy, very likely explains a lot of the satisfaction-based results reported above. I'm sure Regent Law students are also highly satisfied with their educations - it's the rest of us who are not. That said, BYU is a rigorous school that has quality students and faculty, no doubt. It just may not be a great model for anyone else."  And a second anonymous commenter, or perhaps the same one, adds that it may be that "there's not much we can learn [from a religious law school like BYU] about educating diverse student bodies at mainstream law schools."

I have always assumed -- and commenters are free to disagree with me on this -- that religious law schools, while they may get a bump up in the US News rankings due to the kinds of self-selection and satisfaction effects discussed by the commenter(s), also face a ceiling in the rankings: without the ability to attract a broader set of constituents, they can only rise so far.  In my view, there are at least a few under-ranked religious law schools, although conversely I think that many religious law schools are better at achieving some brand distinction and serious loyalty than are many of their peer schools.

But my own experience from visiting at one genuinely religious law school, and from some visits to a couple of others, is that these can be incredibly strong academic institutions, precisely because they share such a strong common mission.  The school I visited at had a deep commitment to the mission of the law school, saw that mission as both intellectual and practical (especially to the extent that it involved offering genuine help to others), and had a strong sense of professional and general ethics that suffused every class and every discussion.  That mission was shared by both faculty and students, so the sense of connection between and among the entire community was palpable.  Not every student or faculty member shared the same religious faith -- I did not -- but the sense of allegiance to an underlying worldview concerned with ultimate ends, or at least to the possibility and value of such a worldview, was widely shared by people within and outside the faith.

That experience, combined with Jason's posts, leads me to ask, somewhat for purposes of provocation but also with a geninue question behind it, whether we are again mistaken to be looking at the usual "super-elite" schools in thinking about what makes for a great law school.  Perhaps we should be looking specifically at the religiously affiliated schools -- and perhaps we might ask, is a great legal education possible  outside the religiously affiliated law schools?

One answer to this question might be the old answer to the question whether you believe in infant baptism: "Believe in it?  Hell, I've seen it!"  But I do mean to suggest that one of the great and perhaps underlooked qualities of the religiously affiliated law schools is a profound sense of shared mission that unifies faculty and students alike.  That common cause can, in the best instances, be deeply tied to a questing intellect and a sense of underlying values, and can thus provide the kind of mystical marriage between practical skills, ethical values, and intellectual rigor that we keep hoping for in the best of our law schools.  And none of it need be the kind of warmed-over bien-pensant liberalism that I see, somewhat over-simplistically, as the result of the usual attempts to mix values and intellect at the top secular law schools. 

Again, I don't want to overstate things.  I had a great legal education at two secular law schools; I don't think there was much of a common mission at either place, but that can also be a virtue.  Of course, too, there are mediocre religious institutions.  And, in any event, I believe very strongly that one need not have any single picture of what a university or law school is supposed to believe or do.  But I do mean to suggest that a great religious law school brings particular qualities to the table that should very much inform our picture of what it means to be a "great" or "elite" institution -- and that it might not be so easy for secular law schools to reproduce those qualities. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 23, 2008 at 05:10 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Chris: "(It was harder to go out with the Mormon friend; I felt bad drinking in front of him.)"

Haha! Chris, you need to find a Mormon from Wisconsin. We have lots of practice watching people drink.

Posted by: Gordon Smith | Jul 25, 2008 10:38:15 AM

I think the key thing is - and you seem to understand this from the end of your post - that if all law school's had a "common mission" and that sense of unity, those of us on the fringe would never be able to attend. I'm not saying religious fringe here, but the fringe of what is "acceptable" for law students. I can't believe that I'm the only person in the country attending law school with a strong intention not to practice. In fact, I plan to spend a lifelong career doing human rights activism. It's already difficult for me, at a large public law school, highly ranked, that *doesn't* have a common mission, to find a niche. It's more or less "oh, that quirky kid." But I think law schools benefit from people like me who bring in a different perspective, and I also think people like me can benefit from law school. I've done very well, ranking and GPA-wise, and I do feel that the JD will help me in my future career. So why restrict students? Embrace those who want to show up.

Posted by: Judith Faucette | Jul 25, 2008 8:52:26 AM

I don't think it is "clear" either, just a suggestion. I do think there would be a commitment to investigating ideas; I just wonder if it is possible to fulfill that commitment in a homogeneous environment. (At the least, I think it would be harder.) If no one truly believes the other point of view, I think opposition research only gets you so far.

I prefer my experience. I was friends with atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, AND Mormons. (It was harder to go out with the Mormon friend; I felt bad drinking in front of him.)

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jul 24, 2008 12:18:44 PM

Just a quick thought in response to Chris Bell's comment: It is not clear to me that we should assume there is less intellectual / ideological diversity, or less of a genuine commitment to investigating ideas, at religiously affiliated law schools than at, say, elite non-religiously-affiliated law schools. True, not all religiously affiliated law schools will be similarly rich or diverse, and neither will all non-religiously-affiliated schools. But, if I just compare, say, Yale Law School to Notre Dame Law School, it does not seem to me that the conversations at the latter are less rich or comprehensive.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jul 24, 2008 11:02:46 AM

Excellent question, and the answer may well be yes.

Still, there are several reasons to suspect that the answer is no. Lots of secular schools offer a sense of shared purpose in a similar fashion. At Harvard, it may be the shared sense of going to "fair Harvard" and the duty and opportunity that presents. At NYU, it may be a shared sense of the need to use your degree to better the common good. "A private university in the public service."

None of these are perfect. Not everyone enjoys their time at Harvard, not every NYU graduate does a lot of pro bono, but I suspect that not every BYU graduate felt spiritually connected. It's just a general atmosphere.

Before I make my next point, I should state that I have not been to a religious institution and do not know what I am talking about. That being said, there seem to be two things that could retard learning at a place like that. (1) A lack of diversity. Being exposed to other views is one of the best ways of learning to question your own. (That's why I love history; you can see when things were different.) You admit that you found the "homogeneity" a bit "creepy". (2) A shared commitment to an idea prevents non-superficial investigation of that idea. I imagine that church-state classes at BYU "examine" the other side of the issue, but soon form a relatively pro-integration viewpoint. Perhaps this goes back to lack of diversity because no one is there for the other side.

That last criticism may be unfair at BYU. I stand by it at Liberty University.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jul 24, 2008 9:57:52 AM

Paul: I'm not sure we disagree all that much. If my point (such as it is) can be summarized, it might be that your title could be changed to "How Good Are Law Schools that Lack a Shared Sense of Mission?" Since the latter may or may not come from a religious affiliation, maybe a related question (also offered in the spirit of fostering discussion) would be whether there are advantages to a specifically *religious* mission, versus a secular one?

A hypothetical: Suppose Truman State University (MO), a public institution, opens a law school with the express goal of training lawyers in the service of environmental justice -- and appoints a dean, hires faculty, admits students, designs a curriculum, etc. around that goal. Obviously, some of those faculty, students, etc. will share that goal as a result of their religious faith, while others may not. But if we assume that the experiment "works" (that is, that the school achieves its goal of a common sense of purpose among its members), how is this different (/better/worse) than the sense of shared mission at a BYU, or an Ave Maria, or a Regents?

Posted by: prison rodeo | Jul 24, 2008 9:31:47 AM

Nice post, Paul -- and not just because it picked up on a point I made. Though there's that, too. But what are these "many qualms" you speak of? Hope your recovery's going OK.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Jul 23, 2008 10:10:59 PM

I make it a policy never to disagree too vociferously with folks named "Spike," "Brute," "Alistair," or "Prison Rodeo." Still, let me make clear, as I think my post did, that in fact I had an immensely rewarding "secular" education, or more specifically an immensely rewarding education at secular institutions. My post was intended to spark discussion, and to discuss my view that there are unique value-added aspects to good religious institutions, a point that the comments on Jason's BYU post nicely brought out and that are worth thinking about. I think it is possible in theory that a secular law school could have as strong a sense of mission as a religiously affiliated law school (one that is more than just nominally religious, at least); in practice, however, I'm not sure whether that is the case, although folks are welcome to cite counter-examples. But, as I also wrote, not having a strong sense of shared mission can be a virtue of its own.

Finally, I didn't say whether I am or am not comfortable with a purely secular moral compass; I just said that a sense of the possibilities of a concern with ultimate ends can animate a sense of shared mission, even for those who fall outside the faith tradition of a particular religiously affiliated law school.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 23, 2008 8:42:56 PM

"...warmed-over bien-pensant liberalism that I see, somewhat over-simplistically, as the result of the usual attempts to mix values and intellect at the top secular law schools."

As uncomfortable as this may make you, there are many of us -- nearly all good people -- that are perfectly happy with a fully secular moral compass. There's nothing whatsoever normatively or spiritually lacking in such a view. And, so long as we have even milk teeth in our First Amendment, that will be the rule in public law schools. So, yes: public institutions will be limited in the way you suggest, at least to the extent that they will not serve an overtly religious creed (and I hope they always remain so).

But that need not mean that a similar shared sense of mission is impossible in those places, merely that that mission need not arise from an overtly religious source. A secular commitment -- to equality, or to fostering free markets, or to helping the disadvantaged, or whatever -- can be every bit as compelling as one derived from religious faith. (Whether such a shared mission ought to be considered in the whole "rankings" debate, though, seems another matter; as everyone here recognizes, that might be a good thing or a bad one).

Posted by: prison rodeo | Jul 23, 2008 8:23:49 PM

You might lump land grant universities into the mix. It's been nearly 150 years since the Morrill Act, and I am amazed at how much the land grant mission continues to pervade the public school approach (at least our school's) approach to education.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jul 23, 2008 5:42:39 PM

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