Wednesday, July 10, 2013
The law school at Seton Hall University has put its untenured faculty on legal notice that their contracts may not be renewed for the 2014-15 academic year. The firings of these seven individuals are not certain, depending on the outcome of other steps the administration will try to bring the budget in balance.
The situation at Seton Hall is representative of many other non-elite law schools. Firing untenured faculty is a shortsighted approach to managing an academic budget. It encroaches on an important principle of academic freedom, namely that a tenure decision should be based on the merit of the case, not the budget of the department. ... The university may need to subsidize the law school until, over time, the full-time faculty of about 75 professors shrinks by attrition. ...
There are better ways to shrink a law school budget. The size of the tenure-track faculty can shrink by retirement and attrition, not involuntary termination. Post-tenure review (by faculty, not administrators) can ensure that faculty members remain productive. Libraries can be moved online. Clinics can be closed, and adjunct faculty can be better utilized to team-teach practical courses alongside research faculty. The size of the administrative staff can be pared down, especially those who manage programs that might be considered luxuries.
According to its Web site, Seton Hall Law School has five centers, seven clinics and five study abroad programs. I doubt all of these programs are profit centers. Perhaps in the age of austerity, the law school will offer fewer opportunities to travel to Zanzibar, take a safari, or study lakeside in Geneva. Better to kill off a few boondoggles than to fire the junior faculty.
[T]here is no escaping the fact that the pathologies of the tenure system have created this situation, and that there is an extremely obvious problem at work here that most people are reluctant to discuss. It would be a shocking coincidence if the seven least productive and most expensive faculty members happened to be the seven most junior ones. In fact, the reality is likely the opposite. Seton Hall has a great faculty, but a quick tour through the faculty directory, as in almost any law school, will turn up at least seven full professors who haven't done all that much of significance since the Reagan administration. Why aren't they on the chopping block? ...
Junior professors, like support staff, tend to be the most vulnerable in the law school, and therefore the first to go. A long-term vision would suggest that the most highly compensated senior professors take the salary cut necessary to preserve the future of the law school. If they choose not to do so, however, it might be entertaining to publicly compare the productivity and compensation of some of the tenured professors over the last decade to that of their untenured colleagues over the past few years.
Law schools and legal hiring have never been immune from these cycles, even in the heyday of the Kingsfield era. But as I explained in a recent paper here, we try to protect the law school from some of that cyclicality in order to maintain the law school’s integrity with respect to the surrounding society. Faculty accept lower salaries and the other perks of taking on the risks of the private marketplace in return for their commitment to pursue knowledge and train future lawyers. The entire society gains thereby.
And while the recent downturn has been more painful and long lasting than many in the recent past, it is only a shortsighted institution – apparently including venerable Seton Hall University – which throws away blithely its invested intellectual capital.
[O]ne issue that he doesn't address, but I think is relevant, is the status and protection of full-time, non tenure-track faculty. I'm not sure whether he sees these folks as being comparable to untenured tenure-stream faculty or more akin to adjunct faculty, whom he sees as a better starting point for cutting.
The budget situation of law schools is likely going to lead to other pressure on academic freedom. Don't be surprised if the search for new revenue pushes many schools into an eat-what-you-kill focus on faculty funding much of their salaries through grants. ... The marketplace for ideas is not the same thing as the marketplace for grants.