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Institutional Pluralism

The conversation here at Madisonian about law schools and “what kind of institution” they should be has been fascinating.  I regret coming in so late. 

I have probably spent more time thinking about what kind of institution my law school — Notre Dame Law School, a Catholic law school — should be than about what kind of institution “the law school” should be.  This is probably one reason why I welcomed, and was provoked by, Dean John Garvey’s speech — “Institutional Pluralism” — at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the AALS.  (I have not yet found a link to the full remarks, which were published in the March issue of “aalsnews”, but here is a report on the talk.) 

Dean Garvey said, “My wife and I have sent our children to Catholic colleges because we want them to be able to integrate their faith with their understanding of art, literature, philosophy, politics, and science.  I think there is a place for this kind of comprehensive wisdom in legal education, too.”  I agree. 

Now, this might not be the forum for thinking-out-loud about what a “Catholic law school” should be, what precisely should be its distinguishing features, etc.  In my view, the project of building such a law school — an engaged, open, critical, and distinctively Catholic law school — is not an exercise in nostalgia, reaction, or retrieval.  The project is, in my view, a new one.

It’s also, I think, an exciting and worthy one, and I’m inclined to think that it should be regarded as such by the legal academy generally, not just by co-religionists and the like.   It is not just “not a bad thing”, it is a good thing, that there be distinctive law schools.  Our commitments to diversity need not, and should not, lead us to insist on homogenization at the level of institutions.  Quite the contrary — the same commitments that push us to respect and learn from diversity in many academic settings might also push us — and the AALS, and the ABA — to stay our hand from requiring that each institution look and act in precisely the same way. 

Garvey fleshes out a number of reasons — reasons that I find persuasive — why we might think that institutional pluralism in the academy is a good thing.   It seems to me that we ought not to resist, but instead should welcome, not only law schools that have focused on serving underserved populations, or law schools with a particular strength in a specific subject-matter area (for example, Lewis & Clark in environmental law), or even law schools with a particular animating point-of-view (Law & Economics at George Mason?), but also law schools that are distinctive in being meaningfully animated by a shared — even if contested — religious tradition.