Law Schools

Legal Ed Section's council deadlocks over tenure requirement in law school accreditation standards

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The governing council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar approved a lot of changes in the law school accreditation standards at its meeting last weekend in San Diego.

But the meeting may be remembered more for the one proposed change in the standards it didn’t approve than for all of those that it did.

The council approved several chapters of proposed changes in the standards that will now go to the House of Delegates at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston in August, including one that would increase the experiential learning requirement from one credit hour to six credit hours.

It also agreed to post for notice and comment a number of other proposed changes in the standards, including one that would eliminate the current prohibition against granting academic credit to a student who participates in a field placement program for which the student receives compensation.

Those changes, if approved by the council in June, would also go before the House in August. The House can either concur with the changes or refer them back to the council for reconsideration with a statement setting forth its reason for the referral, but the council has the final say on any changes in the standards.

But the council appeared to be hopelessly deadlocked over whether to keep the so-called tenure requirement in the current standards, first voting down a motion to reject two alternative proposals that would have eliminated the requirement, then voting down each of the two proposals separately.

It briefly entertained a third proposal it had previously rejected, but it ultimately decided that it wouldn’t be able to finish work on that proposal in time to be taken up by the House in August, when it hopes to wrap up its comprehensive review of the standards.

That leaves in place for the foreseeable future the current standard, which is widely understood to require tenure or a comparable form of security of position for all full-time faculty members, except for clinical professors and legal writing instructors.

Critics of the current standard, of which there are many, question the need for tenure as an accreditation requirement. They also say the requirement has helped to drive up the costs of a legal education, perpetuates a caste system and limits law school flexibility in staffing.

But supporters of the existing standard, including more than 600 law school professors, say the elimination of tenure as an accreditation requirement would jeopardize academic freedom, stifle dissenting points of view and retard efforts to recruit and attract minority law professors.

That split was reflected in the council’s debate over the standard, which lasted for more than two hours.

Council member Leo A. Brooks, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who supports eliminating the tenure requirement from the standards, said this was a “watershed opportunity” for the council to step up and take a stand.

“If we let [this moment] go by, 10 years from now we’ll be facing the same issue,” he said.

But council member Edwin J. Butterfoss, associate dean and professor at Hamline University Law School, who said he started out thinking that a tenure requirement wasn’t necessary, has since had a change of heart.

“I just don’t think we’ve made the case that the t current standard needs to be changed,” he said.

St. Louis University School of Law professor and dean emeritus Jeffrey E. Lewis, chair of the section’s Standards Review Committee, which had recommended changing the standard, declined to comment on the council’s deliberations.

“It’s their decision,” he said.

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