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Public/Private Divides, Law Clinics, and the Role of Educational Institutions

The New York Times reports that law clinics that take on large corporations are under pressure from private companies. The pressure has resulted in some saying that state dollars should not be used to allow clinics to take on “controversial issues.” Frankly, if educational institutions aren’t supposed to take on controversial issues, they will cease to be places where new ideas from any perspective, left, right, or center, are explored and used to test what our society is doing. Sanitizing schools so that only non-controversial issues are addressed is a mistake.

One proposal before the Maryland legislature would cut state funding to a “clinic if it does not provide details to the legislature about its clients, finances and cases.” I am not certain, but I think that move has some free speech and confidentiality problems. For now I call that question out for others to ponder. The part about the story that I am wondering about is the relationship between funders and schools.

The Times piece indicates that several other state law schools are facing similar scrutiny. If public law schools must cut back on clinics, would private law schools expand their offerings? Private schools might, if there is a demand, is one argument. But what is that demand? Is it the training before entering the profession issue? Given the recent focus on the problems of internships without pay, getting rid of clinics could exacerbate the lack of meaningful ways for students to get some practice experience. If so, then public schools already challenged by lack of funding might face an exodus of students to private schools because those schools simply offer the chance for training. In other words, if public schools have to abandon or reduce their clinic offerings, would certain students who could not afford private schools miss out on an important training opportunity?

Then again, private and public schools in general must continually navigate the tension between pursuing the school’s varied goals and funders’ interests in squashing pursuits that may conflict with funders’ business goals. Any major industry is of course sensitive to any questions about its practices. Public and private schools by now have learned that must try to navigate the receipt of donor funds so that they don’t impede the schools’ research interests. Yet, as I understand it, the smaller the school and/or its endowment, the more difficult it is to avoid strings and pressure from the funder. With all schools struggling to find funding whether because of over-reliance on endowment income or shrinking state money, the ability of funders to exert influence over schools is likely to increase. If so, questions about public interest funding, the role of educational institutions in questioning society’s practices, and the value of having skeptics are more important than ever.