Law school tenure questioned at the University

The ABA recommended loosening law school accreditation requirements.
October 02, 2013

Amid scrutiny of law schools nationwide, the American Bar Association has recommended dropping faculty tenure requirements that decide whether law schools gain accreditation.

But at the University of Minnesota, some leaders say the change wouldn’t have much of an effect on the University Law School, or even be accepted.

Currently, law schools must offer tenure tracks for new hires in order to be accredited by the ABA. But the association now wants to loosen its accreditation standards, according to a Sept. 20 report.

University Law School Dean David Wippman said offering tenure is crucial, not only for the school to be accredited, but to attract top talent.

Currently, most faculty members in the University’s law school are either tenured or on a tenure track, Wippman said.

Tenured law professor Thomas Cotter said most University law professors will be offered tenure between their fifth and seventh years of teaching. If they aren’t offered tenure by then, he said, they typically move on to a different school.

Though recommendations from the ABA are important and respected, an ABA spokesman said they’re usually not legally binding.

To drop faculty tenure requirements, the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar would have to approve it as an official policy. The group has power, granted by the U.S. Department of Education, to require schools to follow ABA recommendations if they’re made into policies.

The University Law School and others around the country face decreasing enrollment, which has forced them to increase tuition and react to market-based
pressures.

University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the law school business model isn’t economically sound because tuition is increasing while enrollment is going down.

Because non-tenured faculty have lower salaries than their tenured counterparts, adopting the ABA recommendation could save schools money.

But because most schools would likely continue to hire tenured faculty even if the recommendation becomes an official policy, deregulating the tenure requirement likely wouldn’t have much effect, Wippman said.

“I don’t think the top law schools will move away from the tenured system anytime in the foreseeable future,” Cotter said.

Wippman said the University Law School is working to address financial issues by exploring ways to generate revenue without raising tuition. As part of its efforts, he said, the Law School is considering new master’s degree programs and online education options, as well as conducting a fundraising campaign.

Other recommendations

In addition to recommending dropping the tenure requirement, the ABA also suggested shifting scholarships from merit-based to need-based for prospective law students.

U.S. News and World Report, a leading source for law school rankings, uses median undergraduate GPA and Law School Admission Test scores as part of its ranking process.

Wippman said he likes the idea of giving more need-based aid but said this change could tarnish schools’ rankings.

“A school that doesn’t pay attention to that is seriously disadvantaged,” he said.

Instead, Wippman said, he’d rather see a restructured aid system in which more aid is directed to students with financial need.

But because graduate students don’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, he said, their financial circumstances are largely unknown.

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