New Blog Airs Law Schools' Laundry
Deans aim for tough look at legal education.
A trio of deans this month launched the first group blog written specifically by law school deans, with the intention of driving the national conversation about legal education.
Weary of keeping quiet as critics in the media and online opine on law schools’ problems, the three deans want the blog to be a must-read among their peers, faculty and students on topics ranging from student debt and rising costs to accreditation and declining applications.
Law professors have had a strong online presence for close to a decade, but law deans have, until now, been largely silent in the blogosphere. A handful of other law deans maintain their own blogs devoted to big-picture legal education topics or have done guest stints on law school-focused blogs, while some others blog about their campus goings-on.
But the new blog reflects a growing realization among some law school deans that they need to more actively help frame how the public views legal education.
"I noticed that there weren't really a lot of dean views getting out there on the issues facing legal education," said Southern Illinois University School of Law dean Cynthia Fountaine, one of the blog's three co-authors. "I wanted to provide a forum and get deans more involved in the conversation, which I think is extremely important."
She, University of Mississippi School of Law dean Richard Gershon and University of Dayton School of Law dean Paul McGreal, who know each other from previous law school jobs, decided to create the blog after concluding it would be a good way to discuss the evolution and improvement of legal education.
Law professors have been far more active online when it comes to parsing problems such as declining enrollment, falling revenue, and the need to make law curricula more practice-oriented. But deans are ultimately responsible for solving those problems, Fountaine said. The blog authors have already approached some of their colleagues, including University of California Hastings College of the Law dean Frank Wu, to write posts.
"This is a forum for discussion about what's going on in legal education, and maybe do some problem-solving, collectively," Gershon said. "How do we keep costs down and reduce the price of a legal education? How do we reduce the student debt load? What's going on with the [American Bar Association's] review of the accreditation standards? We want a broader conversation than just the three of us."
Law deans can't afford to sit back quietly, or respond only when online critics, disaffected students or the media take shots, Wu said.
Wu is a prolific blogger on legal education matters. He began writing at The Huffington Post in 2012 and recently added a weekly column on the legal gossip blog Above the Law. His columns deal with issues such as diversity in law school and faculty cost, but he often comments on topics as diverse as race and theater. (He recently gave the new musical "Carrie" a thumbs up.)
"Every day there is a new article that suggests law deans are nothing more than con artists. I want to counter the negative attacks on legal education," Wu said, adding that he welcomes more deans offering their views on blogs and Twitter. "We're playing defense, and I don't want to keep playing defense. My message to my decanal colleagues is, 'You've got to do this.' "
Deans already have a venue to discuss these issues online — but only among themselves. The American Bar Association maintains a listserv for law school deans to speak with each other, but that content is not available to the public.
The new blog would be public — and taking a public stand comes with inherent risk. No one knows that better than Lawrence Mitchell, dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, who received some brutal criticism online after he wrote a New York Times op-ed defending the value of a law degree in 2012. Above the Law likened Mitchell to a "sketchy used-car salesman," and Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law professor Deborah Jones Merritt said she was "ashamed" that a fellow legal scholar would publish an article that misrepresents facts.
Mitchell said last week that he felt compelled to speak up then because so many deans remained silent as criticisms mounted.
"Since nobody else was saying anything, I went ahead and did that in the hope that I would be followed by others, and that in fact didn't happen," Mitchell said. "I knew it would be controversial. That was obvious. I was a little surprised by the intensity and emotion of it, and the degree to which the responses were ad hominem. It got to me at some level."
Wu said he has been called plenty of mean names online and has been pulled aside by concerned colleagues asking why he would want to open himself up to such attacks. Still, his experience blogging has been largely positive.
"It's gratifying when one of my fellow deans says, 'Thank goodness you're out there saying these things,' " Wu said. "I will be so relieved when other deans are out there as well. Who wants to be pelted by tomatoes, literally or virtually?"
Loyola University Chicago School of Law dean David Yellen puts it another way: "If you stick your head out of the foxhole, it's impossible not to get attacked."
Yellen has been a guest blogger on The Faculty Lounge — a blog written primarily by law professors — and also wrote a guest column on Above the Law for several months earlier this year that covered topics such as the American Bar Association and declining law school applicants.
Blogging enabled him to sharpen his thoughts and reach a relatively large audience, Yellen said. "I got a lot of wonderful feedback from people who read my posts. But you have to go into it with your eyes open, knowing that many of the online comments will be negative," he said. "A lot of deans just don't see an upside to engaging — especially a couple of years ago when the discussion was at its most extreme and the intensity of the comments were at their peak."
Mitchell, Yellen and Dayton's McGreal said that some of the vitriol aimed at law deans has died down in recent months, making it a better time to engage a substantive conversation about how to address problems in legal education.
"I'm not sure law deans would have been seen as credible before, but now I think people might be more open to what we're saying," McGreal said. "I'm very interested in the issues that are affecting higher education generally and are clearly going to impact legal education, such as online learning."
McGreal has already been talking through these issues with his own faculty and campus community and now wants to take that conversation to a wider audience. The amount of time it requires to write thoughtful blog posts is yet another reason that law deans have been reluctant to start blogs, since they already have myriad responsibilities, he added.
Blogging offers another benefit to law deans who want to speak out on the issues of the day in a timely manner.
In the past, deans would write lengthy law review articles on legal education topics as a way to share their views. But those articles take months to publish, and the discussions of legal education reform are moving faster than ever.
"Law review articles are not the best way to have these conversations anymore," Gershon said. "We need to be able to move quickly."
Contact Karen Sloan at email@example.com.