Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Faculty Uprising at Michigan State

Moving to the front from Sunday:  see the latest update, below.

They want the Dean out (and more details here).

UPDATE:  An informed observer from another law school suggests to me that the "uprising" may have more to do with senior faculty from the Detroit College of Law days resisting the academic turn of the law school now that the old Detroit College of Law is part of Michigan State University; the current Dean has, I am told, aggressively led that move. 

AND ONE MORE:  A member of the law faculty at Michigan State (not one of those mentioned in the articles, above) has written to me directly and given me permission to post the following:

As someone on the ground here, I can tell you that it is false--demonstrably false--to say that the "uprising" against the Dean at Michigan State is about "resisting the academic turn of the law school." Everyone I have talked to about this is infuriated to see such a large portion of the faculty described that way.

The academic turn that the school has taken since becoming part of MSU had been nothing short of spectacular--between 2000 and 2003, we had twelve tenure-system hires from the meat market (four of whom have since left). We also landed two laterals, and a superlative new library director. All of these people have contributed to making this a more research-oriented law school. There had been some old guard versus new guard tension in the early years, but the simple fact is that we succeeded in hiring a lot of active scholars. In 2002 and 2003, we made nine offers and had eight acceptances.

From 2004 to 2006, by contrast, we've struggled. As noted above, several people have left. But we have still been making lots of offers to good scholars in the meat market. The problem has been that those offers are no longer being accepted. The last two years, we completely struck out in the meat market, which was a disappointing slip after going 8 for 9. We have lucked into some non-meat market hires*great people who happened to fall into our laps--but with the departures, we are barely treading water. Some people say we have just been aiming too high, while others blame the Dean. In any case, though, the faculty has clearly wanted to keep expanding and improving, and has tried.

Susan Bitensky, one of the Dean's staunchest opponents (she is quoted in the letters in the articles you linked to), is one of our most prominent scholars. The idea that she has opposed the 'academic turn of the law school' is a tremendous insult. The same goes for many, many other serious scholars, both junior and senior, who have supported hiring more serious scholars, but who currently oppose the Dean.

In April, the tenured faculty totaled 22. Subtracting the Dean and another professor (who was on his way out and so out of the loop) leaves 20. Out of that 20, 14 signed on to the petition. Of the remaining 6 (average age 63), only 3 are active scholars, and only 1 of those 3 has really spoken up for Dean Blackburn.

The 14 opponents include everyone else (average age 48). There are 4 non-scholars in the group, but the other 10 are all productive scholars*a sad number of whom are talking about leaving if they'll have to put up with this mess much longer.

The 2/3 of the tenured faculty that signed the no-confidence petition left the untenureds out of the process to protect them (they didn't want them to be pressured to try to choose the right side at the peril of their jobs). Nevertheless, one of the Dean's backers, a very senior professor, called and polled the untenured (inappropriately, I'd say). They were reportedly either noncommittal (in reply to the inquisitor, anyway) or negative. The untenured don't seem to support the Dean any more than the tenured do.

So if your commenter was off-base, what is the "uprising" about? Part of the concern does indeed deal with the integration with MSU, but not anything connected to academic issues. There was a lengthy process in which the law faculty worked hard on policy integration only to have its work torn up by the previous university president, who independently worked out a deal with the president of the law school's board of trustees--a deal that contained a lot of poorly-considered and poorly-drafted provisions. The faculty was mightily ticked off by this, and many perceived that the Dean had done nothing to fight for the faculty, and in some cases had acted in ways that further undermined it (I won't get into the mind-numbing details; suffice it to say that there are a lot of facets to this, and that people are irked).

More broadly, there are allegations of mismanagement and serious conflicts of interest (the Dean denies these, but has suggested to a couple of people that he would support having an independent investigator come in). There are also a rash of interpersonal conflicts that have euphemistically been called "communication issues," but basically amount to the fact that the concerned faculty have lost confidence in the Dean, and are very skeptical of his ability to deliver any purported fixes. The bottom line: They think he's doing a bad job and has done some bad things, they can't trust him, and they want him out.

The Dean's response so far has been a non-response, other than to note that the trustees and the university support him. By all appearances, he is trying to brazen it out. There has been some noise recently about the Dean being more responsive soon, but this will almost certainly be too little, too late to satisfy the opposition. (Did I mention that our ABA site visit is this Fall?)


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