Paul L. Caron

Monday, December 14, 2020

AALS President Darby Dickerson: It's Time To Eliminate Legal Education's Caste System

AALS President’s Message, Abolish the Academic Caste System, by Darby Dickerson (Dean, UIC John Marshall Law School):

AALS (2018)The theme for my presidential year is “The Power of Words.” During my January 2020 presidential address, I emphasized three words—“caste,” “candor,” and “change”—and for each word, I posed a challenge to the legal academy. This final column addresses “caste” and calls on the academy to abolish the caste system present in most law schools.

In 2002, then-Dean Kent Syverud published “The Caste System and Best Practices in Legal Education.” Syverud explained that most American law schools include seven castes, listed from highest to lowest:

  • Tenured and tenure-track faculty
  • Deans
  • Clinical faculty
  • Legal Writing Faculty
  • Law librarians
  • Adjunct faculty
  • Staff

He observed that because some of the best practices were identified with some of the lower castes, those in higher castes were reluctant to adopt them. He also observed that those in the lower castes often suffer from lower salaries, lack of security of position, and lack of respect.

Any caste system is insidious. But most, if not all, law schools have them. In many schools, the caste system means that many individuals are not recognized appropriately or compensated fairly for their contributions. At some schools, non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty carry a disproportionate share of the teaching and service loads so that others can focus on research. ...

 We need to eliminate the caste system—a system meant to divide—from legal education. We need to recognize the similarities in and value of the work we all perform and appreciate, not denigrate, the differences. Raising some up does not diminish the work of others. Instead, it improves the whole of legal education. Because I’ve worked at three schools that have made significant progress in improving status for legal writing professionals, clinicians, academic support specialists, librarians, and staff, I know that abolishing the caste system is both a realistic call for action and one that will benefit our students and the legal profession.

Below are three concrete ideas for law schools and two pieces of advice for those in NTT positions about how we might take steps to abolish the caste system.

Brian Leiter (Chicago), It's a Good Thing the President of the AALS Doesn't Really Matter to Legal Education . . .:

[T]here is much that Dean Dickerson says that is sensible and decent, and it's shocking to learn, e.g., that some doctrinal faculty do not treat their clinical or legal writing colleagues with appropriate respect and courtesy.  So, too, greater job security is a good in any line of work, academic or otherwise; no doubt so many academic or "doctrinal" faculty enjoy it only because the ABA mandates it.

But to refer to the existence of different jobs and positions, with different qualifications and expectations, as a "caste" system is just a rhetorical trick, harnessing the pejorative connotation of "caste" to raise doubts about a system of differing qualifications, expectations and authority.

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