Yesterday's WaPo editorial, Our Shrinking Law Schools, was notable because - unlike the Times, which likes to frame the legal education crisis as a freestanding outrage - the Post put matters in far better context. The shrinking number of law students both reflects, and portends, a growing crisis in higher education writ large.
The Post editors have something in mind. Citing Moody's recent decision to downgrade the outlook for the entire higher education sector, they say:
Moody’s says [universities] must address “the entrenched cost drivers of the business model”: heavy faculty involvement in governance, inefficient classroom instruction, tenure and lavish amenities — “student life services,” as they are known. Taking on such sacred cows will require “strong leadership,” Moody’s observes, and could trigger institutional conflict. But the alternative may be institutional decay.
We can have a healthy conversation about whether these entrenched cost drivers actually add value to higher education, and whether scuppering them will put the ship back on course, but the issues driving the law school debate (and law dean anxiety) are surely on the mind of every university president as well.
In the case of law schools, many of these cost drivers are entrenched not only by tradition, but by ABA regulatory guidelines. I imagine that behind the scenes, these days, there is much pressure on the ABA to take sides in this incipient institutional conflict. If individual schools cannot come together as a community, the market will force choices. If there is to be an alternative to a pure market resolution, as far as law schools are concerned, the ABA could conceivably facilitate matters. Whether it will be able to do so - politically or even legally - remains to be seen.