Ultra Vires


Contempt of Course: The business of law school is school

The thrashing of our institution began almost by accident. Following a turbulent period under the leadership of Bob Rae, Ontario swung to the right, as if for spite, and elected a comically reactionary government that promptly deregulated professional school tuition. Ron Daniels—the deregulation dean—boasted about the “price of excellence”, claiming his ambition was to transform U of T on the model of private American law schools. But all we copied from them was the price, with the excellence yet to come.

The real ambition, you see, is not an excellent school but an excellent business. The institution is now concerned more with generating revenue than with disseminating education. The promise of excellence was just the sales pitch.

In this distorted approach, professional schools (and soon all schools) adopt all the worst behaviour of private businesses: treating students like customers to be swindled, professors as executives to be pampered, and degrees as products to be dispensed at the highest possible price. I call this the worst of business’ behaviour because there’s plenty about the mercantile style that wouldn’t harm education and may even improve it. But that’s not how it works, now is it?

Today, overrated politicians with faces like Lego-men talk grandly about running government like it’s a business. A similar toxic dogma has invaded our space, based on the crass monetizing of the “value” of a degree, and the unfounded assumption that only sky-high salaries will attract the “best” instructors. The more expensive your degree, the greater the chance it’s described as an “investment”. (Buy high, sell maybe.) Instead of a balance of professional and academic priorities, we’re driven by a fetishistic lust for anything “efficient” or “market-driven” (fetishistic because while it causes a few to throb with moist desire, in most it just elicits a shrug).

If law school were truly to be run like a business, the first change would have to be a massive raise in the amount of respect students/customers are afforded. You paid to be educated, by rights. If you didn’t learn, it’s the teacher’s fault for failing to deliver the product. What violence this would do for the current system, where you’re largely responsible for teaching yourself in anticipation of an endless supply of pointless tests, exams, rankings, and evaluations.

A deal would be a deal. You would agree to a price, and that number would stay the same until the end of your degree. The cost wouldn’t jump capriciously mid-way through your contract (even Rogers doesn’t do that). And you’d get not just a consistent price but a consistent product. When you reserve a luxury sedan to find that the rental agency only has a hatchback remaining, you’re entitled to a discount, and probably an apology. The law building you ordered is not yet available, and you’re told you’ll have to make-do with shared lodgings and an abridged library. Only in law school do you pay for a Cadillac and drive home in a Pinto. Where’s our discount?

For those who so trust in the free market that they would race down its path in the dark with no headlamps, remember this road runs two ways. The abysmal job market has seen the “value” of the degree stumble, and fall. Where’s the respect for the almighty market when it demands a lower price?

The worst of this is already well underway. Gone are the days when our buildings and halls were named after great legal minds like Warren, Marshall, and Cardozo. In today’s temples we worship only one thing. But the business model, like all fanaticism, isn’t even internally consistent. Hal Jackman’s donation—amply generous as it is—doesn’t cover even a fifth of the cost of the building that will bear his name. The largest donors to the Faculty of Law are consistently the students, whose contributions have surpassed $15 million per year. Yet they are honoured by no gilded plaque or red-ribbon pageant.

Texas A&M—a public university—shocked some and appalled others when it posted an ad seeking a tenure-track English professor to “Provide Excellent Customer Service.” But really, no one who’s been paying attention can claim to be surprised to find universities abandoning any pretense of being anything but vulgar retail outlets.

“Top” American schools—which generate positively-adolescent levels of insecurity in these parts—have begun to seal the deal by introducing a streamlined three year JD/MBA program. Once business school just accompanied law, but now it’s actually replacing law. If that doesn’t paint the picture for you, I don’t know what will.

I can’t say I know a great deal about business, except what I can gather from common sense, which would seem already to add quite a lot to the current mode of thinking. If you were going to mimic the “best” schools in the world, you might start by copying their teaching methods, the materials they use, or their modes of evaluation. But we start (and end) by copying only their cost. If you take the same musty old law school and double, and triple, and quadruple, the price, it doesn’t become a better “investment”. It actually becomes a worse investment. Strange how this needs to be explained only to the supposedly business-minded.

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