There’s an email going around from Thomas Guernsey, the new dean of Thomas Jefferson School of Law. In a letter to the alumni, Guernsey admits that some of the school’s policies have been unhelpful to current and former students. It then lists various reforms that the school is looking at.
But let’s not start licking TJSL’s popsicle just yet. Guernsey’s reforms do not address Thomas Jefferson’s fundamental price problem. The school costs way too much for the meager job prospects it provides. And it’s possible that Guernsey just doesn’t understand that or, more likely, simply isn’t willing to admit that. He says, “I do not know how Thomas Jefferson became the whipping boy for critics of legal education.”
I don’t know if that is supposed to mean “Thomas Jefferson is clearly a great school undeserving of all this hate,” which would be demonstrably false. Or if he simply means “Thomas Jefferson is no worse than 50 or so other ‘accredited’ ABA schools in the way it uses the misplaced hope of its students to turn a quick profit,” which is also probably false, but less obviously so.
Still, this is about as much honesty as we can expect from a person in Guernsey’s position. Anything more and he would have had to end with, “And so we’re shutting down, sorry about all that stuff we did.”
I first saw the full Guernsey letter on J.D. Underground. Here’s the money section where the dean actually approaches honesty:
I do not know how Thomas Jefferson became the whipping boy for critics of legal education. We must, however, be honest with ourselves; many of our troubles are the result of our own missteps, our own failure to plan, and our own failure to address problems in a timely fashion. My immediate plan and promise to you is that we will take aggressive and transparent action to confront these challenges. Since July 1, we have taken what I think are positive, though at times painful, steps to address the most critical challenges, whether self-imposed or systemic. Let me give you three examples.
First, while a general decline in enrollment is a systemic problem, we did not help the situation by allowing an unsustainable growth in the administrative structure of the school or building a facility as grand as ours…
Second, we also did not help ourselves by a slow response to the bar passage problem.
Third, students have had a legitimate complaint about our often indecipherable scholarship policy.
You can check out the full letter on the next page.
Guernsey is right… all of those things are mistakes by TJSL. Of course, it’s somewhat easy for him to say that, since they are mistakes made by the previous administration. Guernsey has cut the faculty budget, implemented remedial bar prep, and tried to make the circumstances under which people will lose their scholarships more clear.
And that’s all well and good. TJSL should be doing those things. But we’re talking about some very cosmetic reforms here. It’s like an alcoholic who admits that he has a problem, and then immediately starts bargaining: “You’re right, I shouldn’t get drunk and beat you. From now on, I’m only going to drink on Fridays and Saturdays. And never in the house!” There’s a structural problem here that Guernsey isn’t addressing.
For instance, the school charges $44,000 a year while posting a 23.8% employment score according to Law School Transparency. That is grotesque. I don’t have another word for this that can be used on a family website.
Paul Campos points out another structural problem: TJSL accepted 73% of its applicants in 2012. Basically, if you can completely fill out an application, you can get into Thomas Jefferson law school, and earn the right to pay $44,000 for a degree that is only worth paper it’s printed on because paper is so cheap.
Nothing in Guernsey’s letter addresses that. Nothing suggests emerging honesty about the reality to which they are sentencing the slowest and most uninformed among us. I’m not sure that you are eligible for honesty points when you are charging this much for a degree of this value.
But like I said, actually being honest would probably involve Guernsey just shutting the whole thing down. From Campos:
Obviously, even the most mild reform in the absurd process by which higher education in general, and post-graduate education in particular, is funded in America would put TJSL out of business immediately. (The school’s enrollment is shrinking very rapidly, with the last three first year classes featuring 440, 387, and 265 students respectively, despite moving to a quasi-open enrollment policy. While the school traditionally admitted about 45% of applicants, that number was up to 73% in 2012. And since a very large number of TJSL students transfer or flunk out after their first year, graduating classes tend to be only about two thirds the size of entering classes). Even without any reform, it may well be the first ABA law school to keel over, in which case the votaries of “the market” will undoubtedly celebrate another triumph of their mysterious god.
TJSL can’t be honest, because doing so would ruin its business model. It can’t operate if everybody who went there knew what they were getting into. Pretty much the only way for the school to make money is by exploiting the information gap between prospective law students and objective reality.
I’m sure we all know people who say things like, “If I’m honest with myself, I could do a better job,” only you’re sitting there thinking, “No, if you were honest with yourself, you’d just kill yourself.” Well, you can’t say that to a person, but you can say that to an institution. If TJSL were honest with itself, it would just stop. It would stop taking money from students who have no clue what is going on in the legal marketplace.
I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.