Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Why do almost all American law schools weigh research/scholarly potential so heavily in hiring faculty?
Every PhD student in philosophy knows that in applying for jobs, one has to tailor one's self-presentation a bit differently for research universities as opposed to "teaching" institutions, i.e., those schools that primarily emphasize undergraduate teaching. Leading research universities will, famously (or infamously), hire and tenure brilliant scholars who are mediocre teachers, while liberal arts colleges place a premium on teaching ability and commitment, though giving some weight, of course, to scholarship. And then there are the legions of other institutions of higher education that are neither research universities nor liberal arts colleges, but which tend to be more like the latter when it comes to hiring and tenure standards.
Over the last generation, U.S. law schools have, by contrast, become completely homogenous in their faculty hiring: just about every law school now looks for evidence of "scholarly potential" in making its hiring decisions, and this often crowds out all other considerations (though, of course, every schools gives some weight to teaching competence). Rookie candidates are now expected to have at least one publication, a "research agenda," and perhaps another work-in-progress as well. Most "meat market" interviews are dominated by a discussion of research. The centerpiece of any campus visit is the "job talk," a presentation of one's research followed by a Q&A session. Most of an Appointments Commitee's time is given over to the reading and evaluation of writing by faculty candidates. There appears to be no room anymore for the "liberal arts college" model of law school, where the emphasis is on teaching ability not scholarly productivity. One of the few outliers to this trend I am familiar with, Baylor in Texas, seems in recent years to have moved closer to the dominant model for faculty hiring. And one need only look at the untenured faculty at just about any law school in the country to see that "scholarly chops" were front-and-center in the hiring process.
So why did this happen? Is it because law schools hire most new teachers from a relatively small handful of elite law schools? That, I think, is just part of the phenomenon that needs to be explained, rather than constituting an independent explanation. Is it because law schoosl are more like graduate schools than undergraduate institutions? That doesn't seem a plausible explanation for a variety of reasons: all law schools, even the most elite, primarily train lawyers not legal scholars, unlike graduate schools; and although law is a post-graduate degree in the U.S., it is really more like a second undergraduate degree, given that there is no prescribed course of study everyone is presumed to have had before being eligible to study law. So something else must be at work in the increasing homogenization of law faculty hiring over the past generation.
I can think of two complementary explanations:
1. Over the long haul, the academic reputation of an institution depends on the reputation of its faculty, and the faculty's reputation is overwhelmingly a scholarly reputation, which is the one thing about which other academics and scholars can have some reasonably reliable knowledge (who really knows how good the teaching is at another law school?). Thus, an institution, to improve its academic reputation, must improve the scholarly quality of its faculty. And, in the wake of the interdisciplinary turn in legal education over the past thirty years, the scholarly quality of its faculty is primarly a function of the academic reputation of faculty scholarship.
2. Twenty years of U.S. News rankings, in which all law schools are evaluated by the same metrics (including academic reputation, which accounts for 25% of the final score), enforces the trend noted in #1. Schools that might have been content to be the best law school in their region, graduating the bench and bar of the state or locality, suddenly find themselves subject to a powerful, external incentive to conform to the standards prevalent at Yale and Chicago and Michigan.
What do readers think? Are there other factors at work? Are these good or bad developments? Signed comments--full name and valid e-mail address--will be very strongly preferred.