Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Reflections on the Van Zandt Era at Northwestern: An Interview with Ronald J. Allen

Ron Allen is the John Henry Wigmore Professor of Law at Northwestern University, where he has taught for nearly thirty years, and is one of the nation's leading authorities on the law of evidence and criminal procedure.  (Indeed, it would be fair to say he is now one of the world's leading authorities in evidence, having played a central role in developing rules of evidence for China.)  I was fortunate to co-author work on evidence law with Ron many years ago, and we have stayed in touch ever since.  As readers will know, David Van Zandt, now President of the New School, had an impressively long and transformative, if not always uncontroversial, tenure as Dean at Northwestern.   Ron mentioned to me his interest in talking about Van Zandt's tenure, and so I posed to him some general questions.  My questions and his answers follow.  They raise important issues of general interest to law schools and legal educators, and I am grateful to Ron for offering to share his perspective on the Van Zandt ("VZ") era at Northwestern.

Leiter:   David van Zandt was Dean at Northwestern for 15 years, an unusually long tenure for any law school Dean.  Van Zandt also seemed to have a  very concrete vision for what a law school should be.  How would you  describe that vision and what did you think of it?

Allen:  The vision had two parts, one of which had beneficial aspects but became harmful; the other was ill-advised from the beginning.  The first part was to increase the emphasis on producing empirical legal scholarship.  In my opinion, this was a courageous move at the time and I think fully justified.  Most legal scholarship is normative in nature, and thus the VZ move went against conventional thinking.  Normative legal scholarship is obviously important, but I concurred in the view that it is over emphasized in law schools, and VZ was willing to take the risk of putting that belief to the test.

However, over the years the shift in emphasis became a radicalized vision, and here is where it became harmful.  In the last five years, essentially the only hiring that could be done was of quantitative Ph.D.'s for whom a JD was irrelevant.  Thus what initially involved a broadening of the scholarly agenda became narrowly focused on one type of work.  VZ seemed oblivious that many fields of law are not easily amenable to this type of work, like, for example, maybe one of the most important within the law schools--constitutional law, or your own field of jurisprudence.  Moreover, he seemed oblivious that truth propositions can be pursued analytically.

This took the law school further and further out of the mainstream of legal scholarship and also compromised the teaching function.  To compensate for the latter point, VZ created a shadow faculty of adjuncts and lecturers who reported only to him to teach hard law, which now comprise about half the teaching load at the law school.  In short, what started out as a laudatory broadening of the research functions ended up becoming narrow minded and exclusive.  The addition of what VZ was interested in to a vibrant law school is a very good idea; remaking a law school in that exclusive vision is not.

However, I do think that NU's experience over the last fifteen years demonstrates the value of a greater emphasis in the law schools on pursuing propositions with truth value (I use that awkward phrase because I do not want to say "empirical research," which is too narrow a concept).  The oft-noted insignificance of legal scholarship is in a direct relationship to its normative orientation.  The American law schools should and can move in the direction of focusing on the creation of knowledge and away from the competition between subjective normative visions.

The second agenda VZ had was ill-advised from the beginning.  He wanted essentially to eliminate so far as possible faculty involvement in the affairs of the school.  He wanted to centralize all authority in the Dean's office and to eliminate any opposition to his policies.  He largely succeeded in doing this, but at great cost to the school.  Very early in his deanship, for example, he eliminated by fiat all faculty committees.  At another point, he simply started announcing new degree programs, even though the University vests the faculty with the power to create degree programs (the faculty finally stood up to him on this one).  At the end of his tenure, he put the small number of people who actually shared his radicalized vision for a law school in charge of the faculty appointments and promotion process.

 In addition, he would literally sanction people who did not comply with his mandates, ranging from threatening, and perhaps carrying out the threat, to fine them (can you imagine?!) to in at least one case removing a tenured faculty person's research funds.  I do not have access to salary data, but I'm confident that it would show that those who were compliant did systematically better than those who were not, controlling for other variables.  We even went through a period where he would give directives to individual faculty members.  More than once over this period I felt compelled to tell him directly that I did not work for him, whatever he might think about the matter.  I'm quite sure that, whatever this did for my self-image, it did not benefit me in any other fashion.

You are as aware of the consequences of this aspect of his vision as anyone in the country.  It contributed significantly to an incredible exodus of high quality faculty;  many distinguished scholars simply did not want to work with him.

Thankfully, we have been able to continue hiring quality people, and our younger faculty is as good as any in the country in my opinion, although overbalanced with empiricists (which is not a problem; we have room to hire--see below).  You are also aware of the denouement of this story line, which was an unjustified and indeed outrageous denial of tenure, the only rational explanation for the decision being that the person did not fit into the radicalized vision of the law school dedicated to quantitative empirical research.

In a somewhat remarkable turn of events, the tenure denial galvanized some of us to devote our energies to getting it overturned, which has now occurred, and also ending or at least blunting what I referred to in an email to the faculty as the "idiosyncratic goofiness" of the VZ era.  The Faculty have come together in these efforts in a very positive and hopeful fashion.

Leiter:  Although Van Zandt gave a lot of attention to rankings, Northwestern Law School’s rank in U.S. News didn’t change much in the last 15 years, and its reputation score among academics even fell a bit, to #15 most recently.  What do you make of that?  Was this a repudiation of the Van Zandt vision or just ‘noise’?

Allen:  To some extent it is noise, but to some extent it is a recognition that the general objectives of a great American law school cannot be accomplished with a research faculty compiled under an idiosyncratic vision of what a law school should be.  If the rest of the universe accepted this vision, we'd be ranked #1; the faculty here are awfully good at what they do.  The problem is that we are competing less and less in major areas of concern of the legal academy.  Thankfully, I believe that we're in a position to build on our present strengths.  We will be doing a fair amount of hiring over the next few years, and if we use those resources wisely we may emerge as a much improved institution.

Leiter:  What does Northwestern need to do going forward, do you think?

Allen:  It needs to continue the very positive developments that have emerged over the last six months.  There is widespread agreement at the law school about a broad scholarly vision, though one that, more than the typical law school, emphasizes research into propositions with truth value.  There is at the same time a recognition that the analytical work of the great non-quantitative law faculty is extremely valuable (and is a form of inquiry into propositions with truth value) and must be a major part of any good American law school, and that some fields will remain battlegrounds of normativity (constitutional law being the obvious example).  The collective good will that has sprouted the last few months is a very positive sign and it needs to be nurtured, as [Interim] Dean Yuracko is focusing on and succeeding at.

There are two issues that are worrisome.  A few members of the faculty subscribed to the VZ vision and they have lost the political struggle.  The larger faculty needs to be sensitive to their feelings and they need to realize the value of collegial decision- making and be accepting, even if not agreeing with, that their vision for a law school is not widely shared.  At the larger level, the University needs to realize the same thing.  We are presently in a Dean search, and it is unclear how much involvement the Faculty will have in that process.  The University, somewhat like VZ, may not be sensitive enough to the values of collegiality and the contribution to wisdom coming from collegial deliberation.  This risks, as we saw in the VZ case, idiosyncratic decision-making that is not in the best interests of the law school.  On this matter, you will simply have to stay tuned.

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