Monday, November 18, 2013
Dean Gershon (Mississippi) calls our attention to the mid-80s crisis in dental education, in which some of the schools that closed were at major private research universities. (For more on dental school closings, see also this article.) Dean Gershon writes:
What is interesting is that among the universities choosing to shut down their dental programs were prestigious schools like Georgetown and Emory. My understanding is that those universities determined that their dental schools no longer attracted the types of students they wanted to have at their institutions. Like law schools, the greatest decline in dental school applications occurred at the top end of standardized scores and undergraduate GPA’s. Emory and Georgetown were concerned that the students in their dental schools would not reflect the high credentials of students in their other programs, so they decided that it was better to close the doors, than to allow the dental school to “dumb down” the university.
The assumption seems to be that it will most likely be fourth-tier schools that will close, if law schools close. Based on what happened to dental schools in an almost identical atmosphere, I am not sure that assumption is correct.
A few thoughts on these striking observations. First, I am inclined to think that the most vulnerable schools are free-standing ones of relatively recent vintage, and those also happen to be overwhelmingly 4th-tier--but their "4th tier" status is not the primary explanation of their vulnerability, but rather one that just exacerbates their vulnerability to enrollment (and thus revenue) declines. Second, there were some five dozen dental schools in the United States when schools began closing; I do not know where Georgetown's and Emory's were in the dental school hierarchy at the time, but that would probably be relevant to thinking about the import of the analogy. Third, law schools, like medical schools, tend to have cross-disciplinary impact, in a way that dental schools (and veterinary schools) did not and do not (as best I can tell). For a research university to close a law school is to lose an academic unit that, in all likelihood, interacts with political science, economics, philosophy, history, and/or medicine. The number of leading research universities (excluding those with a STEM focus) without a law school is miniscule: Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Brown. Rightly or wrongly (mostly the former, but not always!), research universities have come to see a law school as a major part of their academic identity. (UC Irvine spent years trying to get a law school, and during the same time period, UC Riverside and UC San Diego were also exploring options to start one.)
It is striking that many (indeed, most) of the leading dental schools that remain are located at state research universities (far more so than with law, probably for the reasons noted already). But this also suggests something which I expect in the case of law: we will not see any state flagships closing their law schools (though many will no doubt contract a bit or a lot, depending on local economic conditions).