Saturday, April 4, 2015

Deborah J. Merritt on The Ethics of Academia

The Ethics of Academia by  Deborah J. Merritt.

Professor Merritt asks, "What obligations, if any, do academic institutions owe potential students? When soliciting these 'customers,' how candid should schools be in discussing graduation rates, scholarship conditions, or the employment outcomes of recent graduates? Do the obligations differ for a professional school that will teach students about the ethics of communicating with their own future customers?"

Part of her answer: "As a sometime social scientist, I was particularly concerned about the way in which some law schools reported median salaries without disclosing the number of graduates supplying that information. A school could report that it had employment information from 99% of its graduates, that 60% were in private practice, and that the median salary for those private practitioners was $120,000. Nowhere did the reader learn that only 45% of the graduates reported salary information."

More: "Other educators worried about a lack of candor when schools offered scholarships to students. A school might offer an attractive three-year scholarship to an applicant, with the seemingly easy condition that the student maintain a B average. The school knew that it tightly controlled curves in first-year courses, so that a predictable number of awardees would fail that condition, but the applicants didn’t understand that. This isn’t just a matter of optimism bias; undergraduates literally do not understand law school curves."

Her conclusion: "For me, these are ethical issues. I believe that educators do have a special obligation to prospective students; they are not just 'customers,' they are people who depend upon us for instruction and wise counsel. At law schools, prospective students are also future colleagues in the legal profession; even while we teach, we are an integral part of the profession."

What Professor Merritt has written in this article is foundational.  One of legal education's purposes is to graduate ethical lawyers.  Law schools and their faculties must serve as role models to their students.  They must treat their students honestly and ethically.  Otherwise, they will be turning out lawyers who are more interested in serving themselves, than serving the public.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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