American law schools debate tenure

A great debate has opened up over tenure of law professors at American law schools. While this subject has been debated before, the challenge to traditional tenure has new urgency caused by the recent problem American legal education faces of some number of law school graduates now leaving law school burdened with large student loans but unable to find a job that pays enough to pay back their loans.

Because American law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association, the ABA has been able to make tenure of deans and regular law professors, and security of position for other teaching professionals, conditions of accreditation, regardless of the work rules and practices at the universities of which the law schools may be a part.

The Standards Review Committee of the ABA Section on Legal Education is proposing changes in the rules governing accreditation of law schools which opponents feel will weaken or eliminate the current tenure and security of position standards. The opponents have been organizing law faculties to adopt resolutions opposing the changes and defending tenure as vital to academic freedom and faculty governance. Many law faculties have already done so, and more will do so before the end of the spring semester.

There have always been critics of academic tenure who feel that it protects ineffective and mediocre teachers to the detriment of students. To that argument has been added the criticism that lifetime tenure drives up the cost of higher education, resulting in greater financial burdens on students, and indirectly on their future employers and clients.

Why, the critics of tenure ask, should all law schools be bound to identical tenure standards, discouraging experimentation in how legal knowledge is taught and who teaches it? If better outcomes can be produced at lower costs for students, shouldn’t we want to find out how to do that?

But there have also long been concerns over academic freedom and faculty governance to insure educational quality. What makes us think that a traditional university with traditional tenured faculty might deliver a better educational product than a new for-profit start-up on the internet? A tenured faculty is empowered to participate in institutional governance and the hiring and promotion process to insure faculty competence in the classroom.

Obviously there’s an element of self-interest felt by the beneficiaries of current tenure and security of position policies. But there’s also a genuine controversy over an issue of importance to American legal education.

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