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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Inertia More Than Ignorance

Deborah Jones Merritt, along with her son, is guest-posting this week at Paul Campos's blog. Her post today attempts to answer a question raised by a commenter: "whether faculty are discussing the issues raised in this blog and, if so, what any of us see as the endgame." On the former question, she writes: "I do know quite a number of faculty--at my school and elsewhere--who are discussing these issues. Their views and awareness differ, but the comments arise far more frequently in conversation. There's still a tendency everywhere to think that 'our school is different,' but there is steadily growing concern."

Absent survey evidence, I guess the only way to contribute an answer is by way of what one has witnessed, recognizing that those of us who have talked actively about these matters are likely to have a biased selection. But I have seen a lot of interest in this question among students and graduates, and a lot of assumptions, so perhaps it's worth sharing my conclusions based on my own experience. The short answer, as far as I can tell from my own colleagues at Alabama and my friends at law schools across the country, is yes. There is a good deal of awareness about, and concern over, most of the issues that have been discussed on scamblogs and elsewhere, including issues about transparency and disclosure, financial aid and debt, how and what law schools teach, jobs, and so on. 

I don't think it is evenly distributed. That is, I think some issues--and not necessarily the ones that the most vocal members of the student/graduate audience would want--are more salient to many professors than others. How and what we teach is up there, and so is the question of jobs. "Juking the stats" in the US News world is well-known, and thus some of the transparency and disclosure issues have become more salient, but less so, I think. The size of tuition and debt are becoming more subjects of conversation, although not all of the structural factors that have led to them. On the whole, I suspect there is more awareness and concern about pedagogical issues and job outcomes than about some of the broader structural issues. 

I suspect, but cannot say, that there is still a fair amount of relative ignorance or complacency on the part of many faculty members, based less on how highly placed their schools are (although that could be a factor) than on how entrenched particular faculty members are in their jobs and how rooted or unrooted they are to the local legal economy and what happens to their students after graduation. I was struck, when I attended the AALS conference this year, by the impression that although some (not enough) panels were devoted to these issues, many professors were there simply to meet old friends and get their tote-bag for the year, and didn't really encounter or engage in these broader discussions. But I could be wrong! I didn't look into their hearts, and if they attended Judge Cabranes's lunch talk they were at least exposed to some of these issues.

And it is certainly true that even where there is awareness and concern, there is still sometimes inertia. Not necessarily inertia stemming from a complacent confidence that everything will end up working out all right; just plain inertia. Some of this, I think, has to do with faculty governance. Many faculty are not necessarily closely involved in or even aware of the work of admissions committees or career services offices, and administrators rather than faculty are generally involved in setting tuition and dealing with disclosure issues and may not do much by way of informing faculty of how the sausage is being made. I say all this by way of explanation rather than excuse. Faculty --at least those faculty who like to engage in talk about academic freedom -- have a positive obligation to inform themselves on these issues and get involved in asking questions and setting policy. They do not always meet those obligations.

It also must be said that on some of these issues, a great deal is going on, albeit at a local rather than a systemic level. From what I can tell of surveying schools on these matters, there is a good deal of curricular reform going on at many schools, from the introduction of law-office-management classes to a broader concern with skills-based courses. There is more talk about whether schools ought to be trying to emulate the highest-ranked schools or trying instead to be more responsive to the needs of local students, lawyers, and the local or regional legal economy. Again, these aren't the big structural issues, and so these may not be the issues that students and graduates are most concerned with. I just don't want to leave the impression that because everything is not being done, that means nothing is being done. That doesn't strike me as true. But certainly much more could and should be done, especially on the bigger issues. Whether it will be accomplished fast enough to satisfy is another issue; faculty governance, where it exists, is as fast as molasses.

So, in short: a great deal of inertia, yes, but more concern and less ignorance than is sometimes supposed. There have certainly been some stand-pat voices out there, but I encounter intertia more often than indifference or false optimism. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I welcome others' perspectives. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 23, 2012 at 11:45 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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In other words, if we're looking for something as basic as law schools ceasing to present misleading employment outcome data to prospective applicants, we'll be better served with a somewhat inaccurate and oversimplified David Segal article than a thousand concerned law professors.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | May 24, 2012 12:21:23 PM

Good comments, Paul! Your experiences are very much like mine. And thanks very much for the link, Debby

Posted by: Deborah J Merritt | May 23, 2012 4:44:15 PM

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