Recently, Albany Law School has attracted some unwanted publicity, but many other schools should be paying close attention. On February 3, the school offered buyouts to as many as eight tenured professors. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s almost 20 percent of the school’s full-time faculty.
Reversal of Fortune
Notwithstanding its relatively low position in the law school universe (U.S. News rank: #132), Albany Law School enjoyed a nice run from 2005 to 2011 — as did most of its peers. During that period, the school enrolled around 240 first-year students annually. Tuition rose steadily from $30,000 in 2005 to its current $42,000. During the period, student-faculty ratios dropped from 16:1 to 13:1.
But the last few years have been a different story. Even as it accepts almost 70 percent of all applicants, enrollment for the class of 2016 has plummeted to 182 — a 25 percent drop from 2005. The school placed a little more than half of its 2012 graduates in full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. (As with many schools, the decline in first-year enrollment accelerated after detailed ABA-mandated employment outcomes first appeared in 2012 for the class of 2011.)
Albany’s new dean, Penelope Andrews, began her tenure on July 1, 2012. Even a thorough understanding of the school’s problematic trend lines could not have prepared her for the challenges she soon confronted.
On December 16, 2013, Daniel Nolan, chair of the Albany board of trustees, circulated an email stating that “relevant financial circumstances facing the School require a headcount reduction, including faculty.”
A week later, at the request of a newly formed (in November 2013) Albany Law School chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Gregory F. Schultz, associate secretary and director of the national AAUP, wrote a lengthy letter to Dean Andrews. Schultz expressed concern that the law school’s claims about economic circumstances didn’t rise to the level of “financial exigency” required to justify terminating tenured faculty. Instead, he wrote, Albany’s threatened action appeared to be a pretext for steps that “would eviscerate tenure at the Albany Law School and, with it, the protections for academic freedom.”
He said, She said
According to JDJournal, “one of the professors at the school said that there is a ‘small but vocal minority’ of faculty at the school who want standards lowered in an effort to increase enrollment. This would then prevent layoffs…. It’s a very selfish, selfish endeavor. They are really trying to save their jobs, but they’ve ginned this up to make it look like we are denying academic rights.”
The New York Law Journal reported that “several angry Albany Law School professors deny the faculty ever suggested the school should lower standards to boost enrollment and avert layoffs.” On February 3, 2014, the board of trustees reportedly quashed the idea anyway:
“A review of our declining bar passage statistics (we are now the second lowest law school in New York State for bar passage), combined with the extremely difficult employment market for our graduates, compels us to believe that we must focus on quality of applicants, not quantity. To admit students in order to increase revenues due to projected operating deficits would be both unethical and in violation of ABA standards.”
A Way Out?
Presumably, offering voluntary buyouts to tenured professors could solve the problem for now. If a sufficient number of faculty members accept, layoffs won’t happen. That would defer for another day the fight over whether the school truly faces “financial exigency” justifying involuntary terminations of tenured faculty.
Others can debate whether Albany is operating at a loss and/or should draw down it’s endowment to cover shortfalls. More interesting questions relate to any law school’s possible responses to the larger phenomenon of declining applicant pools.
Some Albany Law School professors reacted with indignant outrage at the suggestion that a colleague might have urged the school to counter declining applications with lower admission standards. But the fact is that many schools have responded in exactly that way. Overall acceptance rates have risen from 50 percent in 2003 to 75 percent in 2012. It’s a cynical strategy, but it keeps seats filled with tuition-paying student dollars from federally-backed loans.
Other schools are cutting costs and economizing where possible. Those efforts are laudable, but they are short-term fixes. Any long run solution requires the involvement of tenured faculty who now have a choice: be part of the solution or become a growing part of the problem. Tenure is an important and valuable aspect of higher education. But it won’t be worth much to those whose institutions disappear.
In the end, the question is whose interests matter most. Dean Andrews deserves praise for confirming what sometimes gets lost in the noise as various stakeholders scramble to preserve their positions in the legal academy:
“Cutbacks are very, very hard. But what is motivating everything about what I’m doing is my student-centric approach,” Dean Andrews said. “Albany Law School and law schools exist to train students and it’s all about the students.”
Indeed it is.