Richard Bales, who has been dean of Ohio Northern’s law school for the past two years, wonders just how bad a faculty member’s behavior has to become before tenure should be revoked:
[A]t what point is a tenured faculty member’s public pronouncements, professional misconduct, and/or research methodology, so outlandishly bad as to justify permanent removal of that faculty member from the university?
Academic freedom is rightly a powerful force; it protects the ability of academics to seek and speak Truth to Power. But what if a tenured astrophysicist insists — publicly and at every possible opportunity, that the earth is flat? What if a geneticist claims to find a genetic basis for arguing that members of a certain race are inherently less intelligent than members of another race, and the geneticist’s “findings” both are obviously methodologically flawed and completely ignore counter-evidence? What if a faculty member uses social media or the classroom to denigrate her university, or to make ad hominem attacks against fellow faculty members? At what point does a tenured faculty member become such an embarrassment to the institution, or become so disruptive to its educational mission, that the institution is justified in terminating the relationship?
The proximate cause of this question appears to have been yours truly, or more precisely an opinion piece I published in the New York Times earlier this month. It seems a bit odd that an opinion piece in a newspaper should cause a law school dean to suggest or imply that a faculty member at another school should have his tenure revoked. Now if I were in the mood to argue the merits of the issue, I would point out that no one has identified any factual errors in the piece, and that the objections to it are all based on its critics adopting inherently contestable and controversial positions regarding the article’s subject.
But all this is pretense: Bales’ wish to see me fired has, I suspect, nothing whatever to do with that article, and everything to do with other writing I’ve done. The latter work has, in various academic and popular venues, put forth the view that, given the employment prospects for their graduates, American law schools are far too numerous and expensive, that they should collectively graduate many fewer students, at a much lower price.
To Dean Bales, this theory is reminiscent of an astrophysicist insisting that the earth is flat. But you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to devise a theory explaining why Bales would consider my expression of my views on legal education a firing offense.
Bales was named Ohio Northern’s new dean in the spring of 2013. It’s fair to say he took on a difficult job: the state of Ohio has no less than nine law schools — five of them public — and a far from flourishing legal market. (This NYT piece discusses Ohio State law professor Deborah Jones Merritt’s new study detailing in great empirical detail just how bad that market has been for recent law graduates).
In addition, Ohio Northern is a small university of modest reputation, located in rural Ohio, far from the bright lights of Columbus and Toledo. The law school’s applicant pool was in sharp decline when Bales took over, having shrunk from 1,291 in 2010 to 843 in 2012. Bales, though, had an idea: the school could increase demand by cutting its price. Thus one of his first acts as dean was to announce at the beginning of the 2013-14 admissions cycle that ONU was cutting tuition by 25%, from $33,100 to $24,800.
Unfortunately for ONU, Econ 101 models don’t work very well in the esoteric world of the market for higher education, distorted as it is by its traffic in positional goods, Veblen effects, and heavy subsidization via government loans. Thus despite radically slashing prices relative to its competition, demand for what ONU’s law school is selling has, it’s also fair to say, collapsed: only 466 people applied to the school during the 2013-14 cycle, and, if Dean Bales’ bloggy fit of pique is any indication, applications aren’t looking too good this year either.
A glance at the law school’s parent institution’s tax filings reveals that it too is emitting far from a healthy fiscal glow: the university’s overall expenditures exceeded its revenues for the last two combined fiscal years. As for the law school, the combination of tuition cuts and shrinking class size — enrollment has fallen by a third over the past three years — means the school must be bleeding red ink at a rate that the university’s central administrators consider at the very least alarming. (A back of the envelope calculation suggests that the law school’s current net tuition revenues aren’t even covering faculty compensation. At law schools like ONU faculty compensation usually accounts for about 50% of operating expenses, while tuition represents around 80% to 90% of all revenues).
Anyway, I’m not taking any of this too personally,* as Bales has no ability to affect my employment. The members of Bales’ faculty, of course, should take it personally, since he is making it perfectly clear that taking a critical perspective on the economic structure of their institution is something he considers a firing offense.
*If forced to defend his position, I imagine Bales would cite the passive-aggressive “just asking questions” structure of his post, which doesn’t come right out and say I should have my tenure revoked. I asked Bales via email several days ago what, specifically, he was advocating in regard to my “case,” but he is apparently too
cowardly busy to offer any reply.