Friday, October 26, 2012
Interesting email sent by a faculty member at a Top 50 law school to his/her colleagues:
Forgive me for writing a very long email about an unhappy topic, but I think the situation justifies it. I also apologize for what might appear to be an untimely message, but I have only recently become firmly convinced of my position which is — due to the precarious, unprecedented state of legal education in the U.S. — we should refrain from hiring permanent faculty unless and until it becomes more clear that [we] will not in the future need to substantially reduce [class] size or cut tuition.
It is certainly bizarre for a business to rush to buy a long-lived asset (such as a tenured or tenure-track faculty member) immediately after its customer base has precipitously contracted. Applications to law school were down 15% last year and, making matters worse, the biggest declines were among the precise students we hope to matriculate (e.g., 18.5% declines among LSATs between 160 and 169). Furthermore, I think it’s safe to say that the most recent ... grads (e.g., classes of 2010, 2011, and 2012) and the next graduating class have faced or will face the worst employment prospects of any graduating class in the modern history of the law school and also have paid or will pay by far the most money (even in inflation-adjusted dollars) of any graduating class for those results. I personally don’t think it’s a sustainable model when your customers pay more and more for worse and worse results.
Many of our peer schools are reconsidering their class sizes in reaction to the apocalyptic events of the last few years by substantially decreasing their first year classes (whether this is permanent or not is unclear). ... [A]bout half of the schools ranked between 14 and 46 in the USNews cut their class by roughly 10% or more last year, as shown by this chart.
The important question for us is whether we will, in the future, feel it necessary to at least consider substantially dropping our class size and/or tuition price to account for both the drop in acceptable applicants and also the reduction of satisfactory employment outcomes for our graduates (satisfactory after taking into account the cost of the education). If we do feel it necessary to drop class size or cut tuition, having fewer tenured and tenure-track faculty will make the process less painful. We would all presumably have to do more (perhaps for less pay) to pick up the slack, but that is something that nearly everyone else in the legal community (practitioners and students) have been doing for the past several years.
In the face of substantial uncertainty, there is a significant option value to waiting. Waiting would mean patching the roof rather than replacing it. Patching the roof in this case might mean hiring visitors or paying people to temporarily teach overloads. Or having everyone teach more until it becomes more clear that the storm has passed us by; we have asked our students to pay more and to suffer bleaker employment prospects (i.e., to do more with less), so it does not strike me as unreasonable to likewise ask the faculty to do more with less. (For what it’s worth, I will be the first volunteer to teach more.) The benefit of the “patch the roof” approach is that, should we decide that we need to move to a smaller house, it will be easier and less painful to do so.
I recognize that there may be costs to patching the roof. Students and faculty could suffer by having less permanent faculty (though this could be mitigated somewhat by hiring visitors), and we could miss out on attractive candidates that end up going elsewhere. However, in my view, these costs are much smaller than the benefit of waiting. ...
In short, I am proposing that [we] behave like any business would in light of these facts and what our competitors are doing. I believe that this is the time to rent, not to buy.