The fracas in Wisconsin this Spring over collective bargaining for public employees had (and has) a variety of interesting spillovers, among them this interesting post from a UW faculty member reflecting on the future role of “public” in “public higher education.   The bottom line isn’t really new; it is merely a reminder of things that we, especially the “we” who teach (as I do) in public institutions, already know:  the state-based “public-ness” of these institutions is nominal at best, in light of historical baselines.  At the University of Pittsburgh, there was a hue-and-cry this Spring when Governor Corbett announced drastic cuts in state support for higher education.  But Pitt’s annual state appropriation is dwarfed by its annual take from the federal government.

Little of that distinction matters to our law school, of course.  There isn’t much federal money in our operating budget, even if faculty, students, and staff benefit from other university resources that are underwritten by federal indirect cost reimbursement.

That means that the “public” question for our law school, and for any public law school operating in a similar mode, is is bit more poignant.  If we’re a public law school barely supported by the state, and tuition-driven, then what work does the “public” do as we conceive and execute our mission?  What, if anything, distinguishes our school from our private peers?  Should Pitt, or any public law school, continue to think of itself as a *public* institution in any sense that makes a difference to our faculty, students, staff, and alumni?

Before we can tackle that question meaningfully, we have to remember that the rest of the landscape is not pretty.  The job market for new graduates is terrible and may or may not improve.  The number of applicants to law schools may decrease, if for no other reason than that the number of college graduates is declining.   Law school tuition at many schools remains extremely high, and debt burdens for graduates are correspondingly crushing.  Alternatives to law schools are, I think, increasingly attractive.   The ABA is considering revisions to its accreditation standards that would facilitate entry by low(er) cost law schools whose faculty are not protected by a tenure system.  All of that goes into the “challenges” column.  In the “responses” column, many schools are tinkering with their curricula in order to align their programs more or less with the goals of the Carnegie Report.  In the main, however, I think that faculty assume that their salaries will (continue to) go up, or at least not go down, that summer stipend policies and leave and visiting policies will continue to be generous, and that their teaching loads will remain the same, or decline. 

This is, I think, an innovation problem.  I have suspected for some time that American legal education is a bit like the US steel industry (the Pittsburgh-based industry of integrated structural steel producers) of the late 1970s:  stuffed with excess capacity, dwindling demand, and an unsustainable cost structure.  I do not think that legal education in its entirety will go the way that Steel went in the early 1980s (that’s what we call it here in Pittsburgh:  Steel) — over a cliff, catastrophically — but I also think that the future of many law schools, especially the many tuition-driven law schools, isn’t rosy.  Steel innovated to its very end but at incremental, micro levels; it missed the macro changes that shook the foundations of the industry.  Are law schools doing the same thing?

I may be mistaken in that assessment — I would be happy to be mistaken — but the error risk, it seems to me, is enormous.  The first step on a rosier path is the vision.   Even if a school doesn’t want or thinks that it doesn’t need a rosier path, it still should have a vision.  A vision, that is, of what legal education (or, better, a particular law school) is meant to produce:  people, knowledge, skills, transformation in and of society (or not), justice for all, and so on.  “Legal education as it is today, but cheaper” isn’t a vision; “cheaper” (or lower debt burdens) isn’t output — though “cheaper” and “lower debt burdens” are important things — it is input.  It is “how a school gets there,” not “what we want to achieve.”  What’s the vision?  What should a public law school do?

(Post above spotted via Org Theory.)