Paul L. Caron

Monday, September 19, 2016

My Take On Robert Rhee's Critique Of Florida's Graduate Tax Program

Florida Logo (GIF)I read with great interest Robert Rhee's 24-page critique of Florida's graduate tax program, the reaction by Florida Law Profs Marty McMahon and Jeff Harrison and a reader of this blog, and Rhee's defense of his letter (as well as the 35 comments, including by Florida Prof Michelle Jacobs; Tax Profs Linda Beale, Erik Jensen, and Mike Livingson; and Law Profs Orin Kerr and Jason Yackee).  Although I was a visiting professor at Florida many years ago and have many friends on the Florida tax faculty, I have no first-hand knowledge of the state of affairs in Gainesville.  I disagree with several aspects of Rhee's letter (e.g., Rhee claims that Florida is the most expensive high quality graduate tax program in the country because "NYU and Georgetown are 100% online" — like several programs, NYU and Georgetown offer both residential and online tax LL.M.s (NYU and Georgetown dub their online degrees "Executive LL.M.s" to distinguish them from their residential LL.M. degrees); Alabama is the only school to offer an exclusively online tax LL.M.).

I want to focus here on Rhee's criticism of the Florida tax faculty's scholarly bona fides.  I have served as associate dean for research at two law schools and have thought quite a bit about the role of law faculty in today's legal education landscape and expressed those views in multiple blog posts, as well as in several law review articles and presentations (listed below).  Rhee's discussion of the Florida tax faculty's scholarly performance considers only one of the several metrics for measuring law faculty scholarship and ignores other aspects of faculty contributions to law school success.

Rhee writes that "[s]cholarly prominence can be empirically measured in two ways:  (1) production of scholarly work including prestige of the placement, and (2) citations to the works by others."  

The first point is certainly true.  Brian Leiter has developed a widely followed measure of assessing law faculty publications (which counts articles in "Top 20" law reviews), and Roger Williams Law School has expanded the study (to include articles in "Top 50" law reviews).  Rhee accuses the Florida tax faculty of scholarly "underperformance" without using one of the two metrics he himself identifies.

The second point is incomplete.  Existing metrics of law faculty scholarly performance measure not only publications but also the influence of those publications.  Rhee assesses the scholarly influence of the Florida tax faculty through only one of the measures:  citations in law reviews.  Best practices for measuring scholarly influence consider not only citations in law reviews but also citations by courts, SSRN downloads, and Google Scholar H-Index and M-Index scores.

Jay Soled and I are working on a project that ranks the scholarly performance of law school tax professors using these existing measures.  We thus far have collected data on over 270 tax professors and our preliminary observation is that although these existing measures are certainly imperfect, they do a good job of identifying the leading tax scholars, especially when considered together.  I have argued elsewhere that we need to augment these existing measures with more sophisticated faculty scholarly performance analytics.

In my opinion, Rhee should not have publicly labeled the Florida tax faculty as "not a prominent group of recognized scholars in the field" without taking into account their publications and the other measures of the scholarly influence of those publications.

More fundamentally, nowhere in his 24-page critique does Rhee mention any of the other myriad ways in which the Florida tax faculty work for the betterment of the law school, its students, and its alumni.  With the crisis facing legal education today, healthy law schools will find ways to leverage the skill, talent, and passion of each and every member of their faculty in maximizing the return on the significant investment of time and money that our students make in attending our schools.  It is difficult to construct systems to collect meaningful data on faculty contributions to the success of a law school and for law school leaders to fairly incentivize those contributions.  But the failure to do so inevitably leads to breakdowns of the sort we have read about on these pages over the past several days.  I am reminded of how Rafael Gely and I closed our article, What Law Schools Can Learn From Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, 82 Tex. L. Rev. 1483, 1554 (2004):

Like Michael Lewis, we have told a story about a profession and people we love. We are proud of the work law schools and law professors do in teaching future lawyers and producing legal scholarship to the betterment of American law and society. As institutions and as individuals, we have nothing to fear from the accountability and transparency spotlight. Indeed, we do our best work in the light. We should welcome the opportunity to tell the world what we do and help them measure our performance as teachers and scholars. If we do not, the story will be told by others and it will no longer be our own.



Prior TaxProf Blog coverage of the Florida graduate tax program:

Legal Education, Scholarship, Tax | Permalink


Prof. Rhee's argument that the tax faculty underperform the rest of the school was a very unproductive side point to an otherwise important document. Even if the tax faculty were the 10 greatest all stars in the history of legal academia, it still makes sense for the program to downsize when demand has fallen like it has. A student faculty ratio of 8/1 doesn't make sense for an LLM program, nor does an 80% admission rate for a program that is claiming to be prestigious.

A good opportunity to discuss responsible economics and admissions practices will, once again, become a debate over who is the more productive scholar.

Posted by: JM | Sep 19, 2016 6:33:12 AM

Scholarship is important--- more important than teaching, for U. of Florida. Why should the state fund and tax-exempt an institution for it to teach people how to become richer? On the other hand, without public support, how is basic research to be funded? This is particularly true of technical and high-stakes subjects like tax. A tax academic's work can have huge public-interest benefit.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Sep 19, 2016 8:20:10 AM

I would like to express my admiration for Prof. Rhee's writing of a public report. Few professors are brave enough to do something like that, but revealing a school's problem is in the public interest. He's probably wrong in his conclusions, and flawed in his approach, but I commend him. It is up to the other side to show exactly where he is wrong. Getting the alums excited is a fair tactic, but they should address his points too.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Sep 19, 2016 8:23:27 AM

Any chance that the UF Law faculty meetings can be put on pay per view?

Posted by: PaulB | Sep 19, 2016 12:44:34 PM

Wow. Until I saw Paul's post on FB, I had no idea this brouhaha had erupted. I will only say that, other than the occasional standard fundraising letter, I am rarely contacted by anyone associated with the tax program. I say this with some disappointment, since I played a key role in getting the Florida Tax Review off the ground in my prior position at Tax Analysts. And that is ironic given Prof. Rhee's focus on the production of scholarship or the lack thereof by the current faculty. I could ramble on further, but I will do some self-editing and end on that note.

Posted by: Bob Wells | Sep 19, 2016 12:56:54 PM

I think the era of the large expensive tax LL.M. programs is over.

Posted by: mike livingston | Sep 20, 2016 3:56:37 AM