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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Greetings, and a confession from a faculty committee skeptic

Hello Prawfsblawg readers,

It's been a while since I guest-blogged here, so a brief introduction: I teach "bad guy" law stuff (criminal procedure, national security law, terrorism & the law) at Lewis & Clark Law School, where I'm in my second year after spending seven years at the University of Iowa.  I'll probably blog on a mix of stuff (though not female action stars -- for a running debate between UCLA law prof Steve Bainbridge and me on that topic, go here), including legal issues involved in the Portland bomb sting case.

For an opening gambit, though, I'd like to make a confession.  I'm one of those faculty members who's constantly agitating to reduce the number and size of faculty committees.  I tend to think that good administrative staff can take care of a lot of the business that's handled by faculty committees, and I chafe at how (it seems) committee recommendations get reviewed de novo at faculty meetings.

Having never served before on an Admissions Committee, I've thought in the past that this was a prime committee for downsizing and shrinking its mandate.  Instead of having faculty members read individual admissions files, why not have a small group of faculty come up with the broad direction of admissions -- i.e., let's try to have a diverse class, let's not have the LSAT median/average/25%/75%/etc. dip below X, let's preference students with 1-2 years work experience, or whatever else the committee thinks makes sense -- and then let the Admissions Director implement those goals.  Particularly challenging cases such as very high LSAT but very low GPA, or severe criminal convictions, or the like could be brought on an individual basis to the committee.

Now that I'm actually serving on the Admissions Committee, I must admit that I've changed my stance . . . at least, as regards this particular committee.

For one thing, unlike most other committees, the decisions of the Admissions Committee members are not going to be the subject of any kind of review, de novo or otherwise, by the full faculty.  That in itself makes the work considerably more satisfying.

In addition, I've come to see that it's probably not possible to give any meaningful kind of guidance to the admissions director for the midrange files that the committee reads.  There are the presumptive admits, whose LSAT/GPA profile is sufficiently high, but those aren't the files that we're reading as a committee.  We're looking at files in a fairly tight LSAT/GPA range where it's the rest of the application that really matters.  That's not to say that the admissions director couldn't admit the class from this range, but it wouldn't really be through any kind of faculty guidelines.

But the main reason I've come to change my tune regarding having so much faculty involvement on the Admissions Committee is that I've enjoyed reading the application files and having a hand in shaping our incoming class.  There are some really neat applicants with amazing stories who seem like they'll be great additions, hopefully here, but presumably somewhere.

Of course, this takes a lot of time -- every week, a few hours to review my share of files, and two hours for the committee meeting.  I think it's highly likely that leaving all of the admission decisions in this range of files to the admissions director would produce an entering class of the same LSAT/GPA range and general diversity of backgrounds (not just racial/ethnic, but work experience, college majors, etc.).  There would be individual differences, of course, but probably not so much in the aggregate.  It's a fair question whether, notwithstanding the points noted above, this is therefore a wise use of faculty time.

Maybe if the question is put starkly as, is it better for a faculty member to spend 5-6 hours a week on admissions matters, or on research or teaching, perhaps it's the latter.  But if the question is, given that service commitments exist, is it better for a faculty member to spend 5-6 hours a week on admissions matters, or on, say, the building committee, I would say the former.

Of course, just because I've come to see the value of faculty participation on the admissions committee doesn't mean that I couldn't hack away at committee structures in general . . . . 

Posted by Tung Yin on February 1, 2011 at 02:13 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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As an admissions dean, I am heartened by this post as well as the comments that follow it. If an institution wishes, it can completely place admissions decisions in the hands of capable professionals. If the governance model (or culture) do not allow this, then a blended model is far more likely. In my opinion, the admissions officers are obligated to develop admissions standards and policies in consultation with academic faculty, but do not (usually) need faculty input to make admissions decisions. In some cases where specific technical backgrounds are required, the faculty expert is warranted.

What I believe faculty admissions committee members do effectively is educate the faculty about the overall quality of the applicant pool and provide some insulation from future blowback when a student or students struggle. There is also a culture of consensus at many institutions so it is inappropriate to have an administrative decision without faculty input.

Obviously these views do not describe the cultures or norms at all schools. At the end of the day, the roles of admissions staff and faculty reflect the culture and norms of the school more than they optimize for the most direct way to review files and make decisions.

Daniel Chatham

Posted by: Daniel Chatham | Feb 8, 2011 7:12:36 PM

Almost all admissions decisions can be made easily by a trained admissions staff. While most schools make a good faith effort to implement a "holistic" admissions strategy, the fact is that GPA and LSAT are still the two most important factors for most schools, and that it is relatively easy to identify those students who have LSAT/GPA combinations that either clearly suggest admittance or that clearly suggest rejection. Admissions staff are perfectly capable of looking for serious "red flags" among the high flyers, and for looking for "diamonds in the rough" among those applicants with scores significantly below target medians.

The hard cases are those in the middle who have middling GPA and LSAT scores (maybe one score above your target range and the other much below, or that have two scores somewhat below targets). In that bulk of "maybe" candidates, are faculty any better qualified to make distinctions between largely indistinguishable, middling candidates? I don't see why they would be. Instead, faculty decisions for "maybe" candidates are likely to hinge on idiosyncratic criteria and idiosyncratic weightings of criteria. Some readers may highly value undergraduate degree prestige; some may give special weight to those with science majors; some may put very high weights on race, while others place relatively less weight. If faculty members are set loose on the process, it becomes much harder for the professional admissions staff to make sure that the school "hits their targets" for whatever are the main criteria of importance. Most likely admissions staff have to go back and double-check that faculty decisions don't conflict with the goals the dean has set for admissions. And on top of all this, faculty involvement takes a lot of time that is better spent elsewhere. I think the rationale for having faculty read files--let alone many files--is very weak. On the other hand, it is perfectly justifiable in my view to have faculty play a role in overseeing (policy oversight of) the admissions staff (helping define goals, making sure process is good, etc.) But to make a faculty committee spend five hours a week reviewing applications is ludicrous.

Posted by: woo woo | Feb 2, 2011 11:42:42 AM

"division of labor"?

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 1, 2011 8:23:35 PM

I am with David. No way I am spending ANY time on reading admissions applications. That's not my expertise. I am an active scholar, not an admissions specialist. I believe in comparative advantage and distribution of labor.

Posted by: wow | Feb 1, 2011 7:45:18 PM

Ah, my bad. I gave the wrong impression there. The Building Committee doesn't spend 5-6 hours per week. Still, I'd rather spend 5-6 hours per week on admissions than 1 hour on the building committee.

Posted by: Tung Yin | Feb 1, 2011 4:43:42 PM

Frankly, I think it's absurd that your law school would expect faculty members to spend five to six hours a week on EITHER admissions matters, or building matters. At George Mason, these tasks are handled by staff with relevant expertise.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Feb 1, 2011 2:43:07 PM

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