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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Future Ed Conference and Tenure


Following up on my prior posts (herehere, and here) on Friday's conference on Future Ed -- New Business Models for U.S. and Global Legal Education hosted by Harvard Law School and New York Law School:

Above the Law, Obsession With Tenure And Money Likely to Ruin the Future of Legal Education:

The future, it seems, is in a holding pattern until law school professors can figure out how to get tenure under alternative models of legal education.

The “New Models” Panel featured deans and other educators from schools that are taking some non-standard approaches to legal education. The panelists were:

The educators had great things to say about their programs, but not one of them were focused on the cost to students. It’s like there was this big blind spot when it came to charging anything less than full price to students that are struggling to turn these new educational models into marketable skills. ...

When the panel opened up for questions, I thought the audience would slam the panel for their incremental changes and full price demands. I totally misread the room on that one. There was only one thing an audience of professors cared about when assessing new educational models.


Can you get tenure doing this? Will you be up for tenure more quickly doing that? Will tenure requirements be softened for professors that teach over the summer? How do I get tenure?

Have you ever seen a pack of hyenas wrench a meal from a leopard? That’s what the Q&A reminded me of. The panel was trying to keep the focus on educational opportunities for students, but the audience just wouldn’t let them stay on point. Instead, we got waves and waves of tenure questions.

In response to all these questions, the panel held their ground. The tenure process remains unchanged at most of the schools represented on the panel. The Washington & Lee guy looked honestly ashamed to admit that. But none of the schools were considering moving away from the publishing focus that is the life of all tenure-track professors.

Except for Concord — which doesn’t have “traditional” tenure track professors (“no s***,” was my note for Concord’s revelation).

And after learning that academic scholarship was still going to trump educating students when it came time for tenure consideration, the audience kind of physically sank back in their chairs. I almost felt bad for them. It was clear that many of these educators want to come up with a new approach that better prepares their students to become marketable members of the profession. But it is unreasonable to expect these people to risk their careers by going outside the norm. Not when the big prize of tenure is going to be determined based their academic success instead of their teaching prowess.

These people want a new model, but you can’t build one under the old system of career advancement.

If you are heading off to one of these “alternative” law schools this fall, know this: the incentives for your professors haven’t changed, and the cost won’t be coming down any time soon.

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The attacks on tenure remind me of the attacks on marriage: everyone hates it but nobody has anything approaching a better idea. I'll give up tenure when law firms abandon partnership, countries drop citizenship, and people start getting married on 7-year contracts. For now it is one of the few things that stands between us and the wholly short-term, trivial focus that has overwhelmed other institutions: to those who want to do away with it I say, be careful what you wish for, it might (and to some degree already is) come true.

Posted by: mike livingston | Apr 16, 2010 6:42:39 AM