Friday, August 10, 2012
UPDATE: There are so many comments that the blog hasn't been displaying all of them. To comment on this post or its comments, click here to the Comment Glitch post.
It is extremely rare that we engage in navel gazing on this blog, although we do talk about university and law school employment issues on occasion. Each one of us also rarely promotes our own institution or own work, instead leaving it to our co-editors or to others entirely, but I'd like to make an exception to those cultural norms given some of the extraordinary things going on connected with people at my own institution, Saint Louis University School of Law, or SLU. And before I begin, please note that the contents of this post reflect only my own views, not those of my co-editors, my school, my colleagues (all of whom are fabulous teachers, scholars, mentors, administrators, and people), or our wonderful students and alums (who are smart, hard working, and will make or already are great lawyers).
I'm sure many of you have read about how our Dean, Annette Clark, resigned and you may also have read the letters she wrote to President of the University and to us, and his response to us and appointment of our new Interim Dean -- or at least read about them. You may also have read, like I have, some of the reactions to these letters and actions. This controversy is not the only one that touches people connected to SLU. Jeff just posted about the recent Sixth Circuit case concerning my colleague Lynn Branham, holding that tenure provided no job protection unless it was defined in the annual contract between the faculty member and the school. Both of these developments show us that even those with tenure in powerful positions don't necessarily have any job security or protection.
I'm not going to talk about the details of these events or the letters related to Dean Clark's resignation (I have strong feelings, but this is not the place to discuss those), but I do want to have a conversation (or contribute to an ongoing one) about how it all fits into bigger changes and what they might mean.
One of the most compelling pieces of this for every law professor, student, or person thinking about going to law school is the way these events are seen as having some relationship to the problems law schools and universities face right now: the high cost of higher ed. and especially law school, declining enrollments, declining financial support from sources outside of tuition, and the "worth" of earning a law degree. Above the Law (I'm sorry, I can't link to it because the comments give me Auto-Admit flashbacks) saw the resignation as resistance to university efforts to use the law school as a cash cow, and much of the debate in the comments there (shudder) and at least some to Paul Caron's initial post have focused on whether, to the extent the fight is over money, the money is for the benefit of students or faculty.
Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the message on one side is that if the money was to be spent on research stipends for faculty, that expenditure is not legitimate and should not be made by the law school (or the university) in the first place. Sometimes that's expressed as skepticism that any research actually is done, hostility that it should be separate from and in addition to the "regular" salary a professor earns, or hostility to the value of research period. In the events at SLU it has at least partially been suggested that those who engage in scholarship or encourage students to do so are not teaching students what the students need to learn. On the other side, there seems an unspoken assumption that research is not only a legitimate part of what a law school should do, but that it's imperative to engage in a lot of it. These themes resonate with the larger scamlaw narrative so popular at the moment -- and no links here either because I don't want to promote that narrative -- which has us "stealing" from students for our own selfish desires, or the more measured critiques by people who call our attention to the problems with the current "business model" of the law school.
Absent from all of this debate, at least what I have seen of it, is much real progress with the pressing issues that we individually and institutionally are all struggling with. In particular, what it is a law school should be doing for students, what they need to know or have mastered by the time they leave, who else is served who wouldn't be if we didn't exist, and how to structure it all to serve those constituencies. And of course I'm thinking of many of these things in employment terms (like job security and status) as well, considering that it's the kind of workplace I am in and because that's just how I see lots of things (hence the whole Workplace blogging). Increasingly, I'm frustrated by what looks like the same old dualistic tropes --teaching v. research, skills v. doctrine, doctrine v. theory, academic v. professional school, liberal arts v. technical education, tenured v. contract, at-will v. job security -- without digging into these labels or categories in the first place. And the rhetoric that puts what we do in business terms -- business model, deliverables, outcomes, opportunity costs, returns on investment -- troubles me too because it seems to already presume that some things may not have value unless they are easily commodified.
Anyone who has talked to me recently is already tired of hearing me say it, but I think each of us and each of our institutions needs to be able say what students and the public gain from what we provide and how. Fundamentally, if we can't articulate that, then why are we doing it? The next challenge will be to make our explanation explicit enough -- devoid of jargon and assumptions as insiders -- so that someone outside of our environment will understand, but we can't hope to get there if we don't start internally.
Here's my take. I think there is great value in legal scholarship. The public benefits by getting legal and government structures that make real people's lives better. Students benefit from the scholar's ability to turn chaos into order and communicate both the chaos and the order to someone who hasn't done the same work. The students have to start with order and see how it is constructed from chaos and how to explain that before they can learn to do the same thing, which really, is what lawyers do for their clients.
Teaching, of course, is vital, but teaching requires learning, and learning is not something that occurs within the teacher. Learning occurs inside the head of the student, and students have to learn, not just information, but more importantly to perform a process that is fluid and adaptable, and to master a number of difficult skills, internal and external. We can't just open the top of a student's head and pour in the learning. Most of the law professors I know and have worked with take this very seriously and constantly work at ways to accomplish this for their students who have different needs and abilities, but we don't talk much publicly on how we do that.
Finally, there are many ways in which different members of the law school community contribute to teaching and mentoring students, serving the public, and contributing to the growth of their professions. Those need to be identified, explained, and valued too.
I'll end here because I've rambled quite enough, but I see this debate also fitting into other debates right now, some of which only seem to have one side:
- the view that elementary and high school teachers are the enemies of students, obstacles to their education and lacking any expertise on how to help kids learn or what they should master;
- the debate over public employee pay and benefits;
- the debate over unions in both the private and public sectors;
- the debate over the worth of higher education;
- the push to marketize everything.
I'm sure I'm missing some, but in all of these debates, there are assumptions about value (to whom), cost, and support that are unspoken and unexamined.