Paul L. Caron

Friday, February 24, 2012

Howard Abrams' Application to be Dean of Emory Law School

AbramsTax Prof Howard Abrams, one of the three dean finalists at Emory, has submitted this remarkable application statement:

I do not want to be the next dean of the Emory Law School. And that may be my strongest qualification.

I believe two things concerning administration of the Emory Law School: (1) the faculty should run the Law School; and (2) the Law School should be run for the benefit of the students. Currently, neither of those is true though not out of deliberated decision nor meanness of spirit. Rather, the law school has acceded to a series of deans who (out of the best of intentions) have expanded their role at the expense of the faculty. And the goals of the Law School have never been identified with sufficient precision.

I believe the goal of the Emory Law School should be to help our students lead happy and productive lives and to contribute to their local communities and to the greater society. To do this, we need to give them the tools to succeed after law school however they define success, we must maximize the opportunities for them to realize their dreams, and we must find new ways of supporting our students whose dreams take longer to realize.

I have some thoughts on how those goals can be achieved, and so do others. I believe that the wisdom of a group far exceeds the wisdom of its individual members, and for that reason it must be a united faculty that leads the law school forward. While our past deans and their most trusted associates have sought success for our students, they lack the experience and collective judgment that the faculty as a body can offer. And by reengaging the full faculty in primary decision-making, those members of the faculty who have been marginalized will become invigorated. Accordingly, I would have the faculty chose a Committee of Committees, and this CoC would then determine the membership of all other law school committees. Committees would select their own chairpersons. Endowed chairs should be awarded by existing holders of endowed chairs; teaching award recipients should be selected by past honorees.

For too long, the Emory Law School has emphasized appearance over substance. I understand this emphasis: we have been told that a dean’s tenure is tied to the US News and World Report rankings, and so a dean who believes he can improve the school must first ensure he remains in a position to do so. One advantage of shifting from a bureaucratic model of administration to a faculty-run model is to prevent decanal retention policy from driving law school strategy.

We need to have a faculty more in touch with the general legal community. That means, I think, less teaching by adjunct faculty and more teaching with adjunct faculty. We need to have more team teaching by law school faculty with other law school faculty and more team teaching with other members of the University, especially members of the Business School and Medical School faculties.

This will also help us increase – and we need to dramatically increase – the entrepreneurial atmosphere of the law school. Regardless of what our students do and who they may advise, the world now requires an entrepreneurial approach in all aspects of commerce. We need to develop that spirit in ourselves; we need to help foster it in our students. We need a small business clinic. We need to better understand what our students do after graduation, and then we need to help them do it.

We need to teach more. Law faculties have used the US News and World Report rankings as justification for moving significant resources out of classrooms and into faculty offices: only faculty scholarship, we are told, will increase our peer reputational ranking. But as we all know, while the best legal scholarship really is very good, most legal scholarship (because publication decisions and editing are done by second-year students) is not good and rarely is read. Producing innovative courses and teaching methods likely will improve our reputation as much as the publication of one or two or three journal articles that are of interest only to other academics and often not even to them. Innovation in the classroom certainly will benefit our students. I would return to a four course annual teaching package, though with more team teaching as part of those packages.

And I think we need to change our financial aid program dramatically. I would shift most or all financial aid into student loans with interest deferred until graduation and with reduction of interest and principal payments for up to five years depending on post-graduation income. That is, those of our students who seek and achieve immediate financial success can afford to bear the full cost of their legal education. But those students who have other goals or whose goals cannot immediately be achieved should have the burden of their debt reduced for a reasonable period. This has the added benefit of tying the Law School’s economic interest to that of its students: if the students cannot find jobs, the school does not get paid.

There are very many things about running a law school that I do not know. I do not know why we have had the same number of students since I arrived 30 years ago but the number of administrators has increased dramatically. I do not know why we are unable to replace members of the faculty who have retired or passed away. I do not know why the Provost has asked that dean candidates describe their vision for the law school in no more than three pages. Perhaps most importantly, I do not know why Robert Howell Hall Professor of Law Richard D. Freer will not be our next dean: he is our best teacher, one of our very best scholars, and he has the strongest relationship of any member of the faculty with the bench and bar. But I do know that we need new leadership and new vision. If we cannot get the most obvious candidate, perhaps it should be me.

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(1) the faculty should run the Law School; and (2) the Law School should be run for the benefit of the students

I realize Professor Abrams is now a member of the faculty and does not see these as incompatible goals, but I suspect many Deans would find them to be incompatible and would need to choose between those goals on many occasion.

Posted by: Kyle | Feb 25, 2012 9:46:09 AM

My thought exactly, Kyle. If you give away power to someone else, you can't expect them to have the same goals in mind as you do.

Of course, running the school for the benefit of the students, tho it sounds nice, is a dubious goal. Doesn't the law school have some duty to the world of knowledge, and the rest of society besides some soon-to-be-rich students?

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Feb 26, 2012 6:58:06 PM