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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Developing a law faculty: diversify, or build on strength?

I guess I held out pretty well on my New Year's resolution to stop blogging. But now that I've fallen of the wagon, I hope to start posting more again.

Anyway, as a member of my school's appointments committee this year, I've been thinking about how a law school should set its general agenda for hiring. Of course there are a lot of factors to consider, but what I'd like to focus on is how a school can best improve itself as a producer of scholarly writing. (Schools might do this out of a desire to improve the substance of their scholarly output, or a desire to improve their reputation, or both.)

My particular question is this: should a school pursue "breadth" or "depth" in its faculty? Is it better to have a faculty that represents a boradly diversified portfolio of interests, subject areas, methodologies, ideologies, etc., or to have more uniformity along one or more of these axes, thus developing a core strength or a "personality"? If the second of these, should the school simply build on its existing strengths to solidify a comparative advantage, or should it try to anticipate future trends?

The "depth" or "concentration" model makes some degree of intuitive sense, since having several faculty members with overlapping expertise, or using similar approaches, can create synergies that might make their collective work better than otherwise. (On the other hand, modern communications technology might obviate the need for such people to be in the same location.) Certainly some top schools are "stacked" in specific subject areas, and some other schools (e.g., George Mason) seem to have done relatively well for themselves by specializing to some degree. U of Chicago might be an example of the benefits (reputational or otherwise) of having a "personality," though it also seems to me that Chicago's faculty is presently more diverse in various ways than the "Chicago school" label suggests, and maybe after a school has established something like the "Chicago school" identity (real or perceived), it can have a hard time stepping out of its own shadow. And perhaps it's hard to be an "outsider" at a school with a large contingent of people working in a certain area or doing things a certain way, or "insiders" might become a coalition with disproportionate political clout they may not wield to the school's benefit.

On the "breadth" side, a school might specifically feel the need to have "coverage" in a scholarly area (not just a teaching area) where it currently lacks a presence -- not only "we need someone to teach Property," but "we need a law and econ person," or a critical race theorist, or what have you. I sometimes hear people on my faculty expressing views of this general sort, though they don't always agree on what the holes are that we need to fill. Of course, this approach might create positive spillover too, if one person's work benefits from the insights or critiques of someone with a distinct view or approach. (But as an empirical matter, how often do people share their work with colleagues in completely unrelated fields? I observe that happening more with junior faculty than with more established scholars, though I'm sure it varies depending on schools and individuals.)

Do other people have thoughts about this? And do your schools' faculties have conversations about hiring at this level of generality or long-range thinking? I get the sense that for a lot of schools, the hiring process is more ad hoc, responding to (perceived) immediate teaching needs, among other things. Are resource constraints, or the likely levels of disagreement among faculty members about these general issues, such as to make the larger conversation a waste of time?

Also, is either model noticeably better or worse in terms of students' educational experience? Maybe students benefit from exposure to intellectual diversity, but maybe they also benefit by self-selecting into an institution that focuses on the subjects, skills, etc., that they want.

Posted by Michael Cahill on January 22, 2009 at 12:39 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I'm not part of the official appointments process at my school, so I only know what happens at the faculty meetings. For the most part, faculties are given a candidate to vote up or down on but we don't really have the chance to do agenda setting regarding cluster hiring in a given area except through whatever informal lobbying one might do with the deans or the appointments committee.

Sometimes, universities set up special funds to do cluster hires in particular subjects. But unless there's some kind of special budget available, my experience with law schools has been their general unwillingness to consciously build an area of strength when there are still holes to fill for the curriculum.

And fwiw, maybe with both Leiter and Nussbaum now at UChicago, its reputation as anti-philosophical will diminish...but as a general matter, it's hard to build an area of strength on the shoulders of just a couple people, even if they're very good at publishing and promotion!

Posted by: Administrators | Jan 23, 2009 12:17:45 AM

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