A New Law Student Protest: ‘Where’s My Job?’

An interesting article in USA Today could signify the arrival of a new type of campus-related protest in America. In it, Mary Beth Marklein reported that a new generation of law students and graduates is rising in protest over the failure of law schools to give them honest accountings of the job market and their professional prospects. She wrote: “Law schools, once viewed as a guaranteed path to a high-paying career, are coming under fire as disillusioned graduates find a tighter job market than they say they were led to expect… A small but growing coalition of graduates, on blogs with names like ‘Scammed Hard’ and ‘Shilling Me Softly,’ blame their alma maters for luring them into expensive programs by overstating their employment prospects.”
Two Vanderbilt law students have founded a new organization, “Law School Transparency,” which has asked 200 law schools to submit data about salaries and employment for recent graduates, which they plan to make available on line. According to Marklein, one recent grad has even gone on a hunger strike to protest his predicament and the situation.
Though most grads end up employed (88% of the class of 2009), many languish in part-time or temporary positions, and pay is often shockingly disappointing. And, of course, there is the problem of debt, the new version of American Apple Pie. The average debt for a public law school grad is about $60,000 and slightly over $90,000 for private school counterparts. One Georgetown grad quoted in the article is drowning in debt amounting to $175,000. “If you count on law schools to do the right thing, you’re going to be waiting a long time,” he told Marklein.

On the one hand, it is easy to find fault on the part of the students. Caveat emptor is a hard truth in the world, and it is the personal responsibility of would-be law students to ascertain the market situation as best they can. It’s not as if the dire economic straits of the nation and the world are a mystery. I have been warning my undergrad law aspirants about the problem for several years now, and I have not bothered to read a single page of data about the law job market. On the other hand, law schools are hardly innocent victims of students’ penchants to shift responsibility. As Marklein points out, they have seldom been candid or forthcoming about the practical prospects of their students.
Though Marklein does not delve more deeply into the matter, this failure reflects two problems. First, as self-interested entities, universities and colleges have not always been forthcoming with the truth—their moral and legal charters to “pursue truth” notwithstanding. One recalls how the University of California buried the truth about its use of racial categories (amounting to quotas) in admissions in the 1990s, the exposure of which helped lead to the passage of Proposition 209 in that state, banning such use. I could give you more examples, but I have only one life to live.
The second problem—also a product of self-interest not rightly understood—is complacency about the social consequences of our actions. The problem is not limited to law schools. In a nutshell, many institutions have become too self-referential and interested, losing sight of the fact that we exist to perform a service for others. Numerous individual exceptions to this criticism do not change the larger picture. Indeed, the problem is more institutional in nature than individual. Institutions can fail us despite the best intentions of the individuals within them. (To wit, read Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man, Immoral Society.) Institutional needs have a way of being viewed as moral necessities.
Our mentality seems to be this: If we need students to help fund our work, then we need students, regardless of whether their educations will serve their own interests once they leave our gates. The problem might be most acute at major institutions, which charge more for the privilege of attendance, pay their professors more, and teach less. But how well are other institutions doing these days in placing students in positions of merit?
In many respects, this predicament is part of a larger social problem. Sociologists have developed what is called the “cluster” theory of society. In essence, a cluster is a large, systemic sociological grouping that shares common experiences and worldviews, largely cut-off from or indifferent to the views of the outside world. It is the famous New Yorker cover of Manhattan glancing over the Hudson at America, writ large. National clusters at the end of World War II numbered in the teens or twenties. Today there are many times that many such entities, and counting. Dick watches Fox, while Jane watches MSNBC. There is no doubt a news station somewhere out there for Spot. Universities have become their own cluster, making them less cognizant of the needs of their clientele. Does the mentality of the life-long professional politician come to anyone’s mind?
We have forgotten that the traditional perquisites of academic life have been extended to us as a public trust: we enjoy the privileges of academic freedom, access to research funding and resources, protection from undue societal and governmental recrimination, tenure (for those of us fortunate to have it), and a host of other benefits because we have something to offer our students and the public. Hopefully this “something” is good teaching, the stretching of the mind, helping students prepare for life, and the provision of knowledge and the pursuit of truth to students and society.
The fate of teaching at many institutions cuts to the heart of the problem. Many schools and departments are pursuing lower teaching loads at the same time that student fees and other costs are rising. (The costs of higher education have greatly exceeded inflation every year for well over a decade.) This trend has been pronounced at law schools. The argument for it is that schools that do not keep up with the Joneses by lowering teaching loads soon find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with the Joneses in the recruitment of faculty. A while ago, major law schools moved to a three-courses-a-year load. Now some are adopting two-course loads (one per semester). Meanwhile, salaries have risen sharply, partly due to the assumption that law professors could make more money in the private sector. (One wonders how many could do so after more than a decade away from this market.) A similar trend has taken place in economics departments. Many economics departments now enjoy a two course load per year. But beyond the Hudson, students’ tuitions, fees, and debt rise and accumulate.
Recent books of interest have brought this and related problems to Americans’ attention, such as Andrew Hacker’s and Claudia Dreifus’s, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do about It. My sister, Jane Downs, is a writer with often keen perceptions about society and human nature. When I told her about the Hacker and Dreifus book, she replied, “We live in an era where old institutional arrangements and assumptions no longer apply. Change will come, but we don’t know what form it will take.” Could it be that higher education—chartered to lead us into the future by pushing the frontiers of knowledge—in its present form is hindering this change from happening?


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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