Sunday, June 02, 2013

Law Schools and the University: Who is Supporting Who

Mark Graber

The financial model of most law schools has been subject to extensive criticism recently.  Many commentators insist that high tuition is subsidizing professors who write little, write little of importance, or, write little of importance for “practice-ready” lawyers. Whatever merits the model had in the past, the way in which law schools operate is no longer viable in light of a shrinking job market, shrinking applications and the need for more scholarships.  Prominent bloggers insist that when law school deans beg university presidents for finance support, those presidents should insist as a condition of support the dramatic revamping of the law school curriculum and a serious rethinking of the place of scholarship at the law school.

Several conversations with colleagues at the 2013 annual meeting of the Law and Society Association suggest that depicting law school deans as begging for substantial financial "support" from the broader university is seriously misleading.  Most universities insist that the law school turn over a significant percentage of tuition revenue.  The ABA recommends that universities take no more than 20% of tuition revenue, but that is a recommendation only and as universities have been in financial crisis, many have demanded an increasingly higher percentage of law school tuition revenue.  This means that at a great many universities, law school tuition does not simply subsidize scholarship.  Instead, revenue from the law school subsidies the women’s field hockey team, the opera workshop, scholarships for graduate students in classics, and several research projects in the medical school.  We are told by the powers to be that the tax on our tuition is paid by all units on campus and all units benefit to some degree from the central spending.  Nevertheless, my conversations with law professors from other institutions suggests substantial concerns with both the method by which contributions to the central administration are calculated and the method by which general benefits are distributed.  Many law schools seem to be in the position of rural communities forced to pay a state-wide tax on cows that is used primarily to pay for mass transit.

Recent conditions will put law school finances under considerable stress and many internal practices will no doubt have to be adjusted as many of institutions lower class size and increase scholarships.  Still, relationships between the law school and broader university community ought to be described accurately.  At least in the cases I know, no one is asking for financial support from the university community.  Rather, I suspect more law school deans are merely asking that in light of new financial realities, law schools be permitted to reduce the extent to which law school tuition supports and subsidizes other university activities.

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