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Law-School Professors Face Less Job Security; Changes Promise to Make It Easier to Pare Faculty as Enrollment Declines

August 11, 2013, 7:18 p.m. ET

Law-School Professors Face Less Job Security

Changes Promise to Make It Easier to Pare Faculty as Enrollment Declines

JENNIFER SMITH

SAN FRANCISCO—The main body that accredits U.S. law schools is moving to reduce job protections for law professors, who have long enjoyed the security of academic tenure. The shift comes at a time of plunging student enrollment, and could make it easier for law schools to trim the ranks of full-time faculty, whose salaries consume a considerable share of tuition dollars. Some law schools that are struggling to balance their budgets have dismissed administrative staff in recent months. Others are offering buyouts to reduce the number of tenured professors or are leaving empty posts unfilled.Most U.S. colleges and universities have some sort of tenure system intended to protect academic freedom. But law schools are somewhat unusual among professional schools, because the American Bar Association requires them to grant tenure to certain full-time faculty as a condition of accreditation.

Those protections would be scaled back under two competing proposals approved last week at the ABA’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

One version of the changes would require law schools to offer some more-limited form of job security to full-time faculty members, while the other would require only that schools have policies in place to protect academic freedom and to attract and retain “competent full-time faculty.”

The decision to move away from the more-stringent requirement stirred vigorous debate over fairness and whether the current job-security mandates hampers law schools’ abilities to rein in costs as student enrollment declines.

“The problem is, the fixed costs we have sit in tenured faculty,” said Maureen O’Rourke, dean of Boston University School of Law and a member of the governing council of the ABA’s section of legal education and admissions to the bar. “I understand the need for academic freedom…. But as an industry we have a need for flexibility that we just don’t have right now.”

On Friday, the council voted to put both job-security options out for public comment, and is expected to adopt one of the two choices based on the responses. After various procedural hurdles the new standard would likely take effect sometime in late 2014, according to Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education.

Budget concerns and the need to keep law-school tuition from rising even more also spilled over into a separate discussion on Saturday about the challenges facing law schools.

“Law professors and law deans are paid too much,” said Kent Syverud, dean of Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, told the ABA’s task force on the future of legal education. “Either we have to be paid less, or we have to do more…. The whole problem of costs probably would go away if our salaries were halved.”

Law professors can make anywhere from about $75,000 to $200,000 a year, but much depends on the school, their level of experience and whether they are on a tenure track. Star faculty members and those at super-elite law schools can earn several hundred thousand dollars a year.

In recent years law schools have faced considerable criticism from those who say hefty tuition is saddling law graduates with untenable levels of debt when entry-level legal positions are in short supply.

Law-school tuition ranges from as little as $10,000 a year at some public universities to as much as $50,000 to $55,000 at elite public or private schools.

Raising tuition now to compensate for the shrinking student pool would be “unconscionable,” Ms. O’Rourke said on Friday.

But some law professors worry that limiting job protections would silence faculty who espouse unpopular positions or take on controversial cases, prompting alumni or prominent donors who disagree to push for their dismissal. Other educators and attorneys voiced frustration with inequities in the current tenure requirement because it offers fewer protections to professors who teach clinical courses and to legal writing teachers. Some of them said those groups have borne brunt of recent cuts.

“I’d rather have equal protection for everybody,” said Tracy Allen Giles, a partner at Giles & Lambert PC, a small Virginia law firm. Still, he said, “to me, tenure protects certain professors, and it doesn’t protect the students that I can tell.”

That’s also the view held by Andrew Corddry, a second-year law student at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Wash., who attended the ABA conference but wasn’t at Friday’s meeting on accreditation standards.

“I want the best educational experience,” said the 27-year-old Mr. Corddry. The tenure system, he said, “really gets in the way of getting the right teachers in the right places.”

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Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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