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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

AALS: is, not, and ought

Posts and comments about scholarship funding (and related other subjects) mention AALS from time-to-time.  Perhaps it would be helpful to frame more precisely what the ass'n views as its role (speaking here just as one volunteer, not in any way for the organization):

The AALS is a voluntary association of law schools.  It is not an accreditator and has nothing in the way of power over law schools or their faculties.  Rather, it is an organization made up of law schools which have accepted the association's core values, abide by its membership bylaws and, for reasons best known the law schools themselves, believe that the association provides sufficient value to warrant joining.  Where the on balance tradeoff augurs against continuing adherence to these core values, the institution should surrender membership, and there should be no penalty for its students, graduates, and alumni for doing so.  "Is this association consistent with our institutional mission and valuable for us" should always be the question for the law school.

The AALS takes no global position on what a law school must be -- how it trains its students, how it configures its faculty, what it costs, what should the tradeoff be between teaching and scholarship, or other central issues that are driven, in the main, by the articulated mission of law school.

To be sure, it takes positions on what ought to be the core values of this voluntary membership group.  And it seeks to articulate and implement these values through a membership process to which schools aspiring to join and continue in good standing subscribe to.

Law schools will necessarily be in the position of making to make difficult tradeoffs and, under present circumstances especially, adjustments in their ways of doing business.  Meaningful engagement with member schools obliges -- or I should say, should certainly oblige -- the AALS to be both understanding and constructive in the ways in which law schools make these hard choices.

Positioning itself as an advocate for the value of legal scholarship in the architecture of the member law school is important especially when law schools are under stress.  Seeing and voicing the value to the profession and to public debates about the role, functions, and place of law in a civilized, diverse society is unequivocally a fundamental function of the association.  And it ought never be bashful about such advocacy.

But whether and to what extent this is a fundamental function of the law schools themselves is ultimately a question of institutional mission.  The AALS need not take any distinct position on that matter.  Nor should it take distinct positions on precisely how member law schools perform these functions of supporting scholarship.  Here, too, the AALS serves its member schools best when it organizes and disseminates good ideas and best practices.  The difficult tradeoffs -- including the financial tradeoffs -- will necessarily be made by the schools themselves and their key stakeholders.

So what ought AALS to do in this respect?  Be simultaneously an advocate for (inter alia) the important role of scholarship in the life and activities of member law schools and an advocate for diversity, imagination, and innovation in how member law schools constructively go about supporting scholarship in their institutions.

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on February 26, 2014 at 01:48 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Matt, You have finger squarely on this tension. And a tension it is indeed. A little thin? Perhaps one can cast it this way. But it is a critical mission, that is, assisting member law schools in myriad ways with what are essentially institution-driven initiatives and projects. AALS requires that scholarship is deeply embedded in the work of the law school. And it provides resources (meetings are just one example) to aid law schools in this quest.
A key question for any given law school is whether this mission of promoting and supporting scholarship can be managed in difficult economic times. I believe the answer to that is yes, and in fact have some ideas borne of experience and focused exchange with other deans and faculty members about how to go about it. But I don't presume to walk in the shoes of other deans who face unique challenges in their particular institutions.

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Mar 1, 2014 12:07:59 PM

Dan -- it seems like there is a real tension between being a big tent and being a smaller tent with more of a mission or purpose. If you support "scholarship" but then take a very ecumenical view on what it is and how schools can and should support it, doesn't that make the Association's mission a little too thin?

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Feb 27, 2014 12:15:55 PM

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