The Heart of a Center

So here’s a question for people thinking about the nature of law schools and the nature of scholarship (and with thanks to Mike Madison for picking up on my invitation to blog more about his research deanship).

I’ve talked to a lot of folks at a lot of schools with different philosophies on law school centers.  Even folks within the same school often have widely divergent views about what law school centers can and should be doing for the overall law school enterprise.  And of course, it must be acknolwedged that centers can serve a variety of different functions within a law school – and different individual centers can have different individual roles.

So my question is whether there is any way to get to the heart of the center question.  Are there one or more key ideals that all centers in law schools should be able to live up to, or to contribute to the school?  And, if so, is it something other than:  “It’s a marketing device to attract faculty/students.”  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m asking the question out of legitimate interest.)

We’ve been talking about this recently at my school and the question is of particular interest here because we have a number of different centers that were set up under vastly different conditions for vastly different purposes.  Some are research focused and obtain grant funding.  At least one has a private endowment.  Some take advantage of collections of faculty who specialize in particular subject areas.  Presumably none of them are cost-neutral for the school, although none of them drain big bucks out of the budget either.

There are always political questions within faculty about centers and the role of faculty who happen to operate as center directors (I plead guilty to the charge of being a center director).  “Why does s/he get [a lighter teaching load/a director’s stipend/a dedicated administrative support person/_______]?”  Pick one or fill in the blank.

But politics aside, what do centers ideally contribute/potentially detract from a school?

Some possibilities…

– increased research synergies?

– impact on student admissions (ie strong students in specialist areas who might not be attracted to a particular school otherwise)?

– impact on faculty recruitment (but this could be positive or negative as it may attract faculty who write and teach in the area(s) of the center(s), but dissuade those who can’t see that they would fit in to a center; also hiring decisions internally could be impacted by a perceived need to “staff the centers”)

– impact on law school identity (again, pros and cons to this one – do you want to be known as a specialist school or a generalist school, and why)?

– ability for a school to attain a high ranking in a U.S. news specialty even if the school overall isn’t particularly highly ranked?

– focus for pulling together research grant or other funding (either by themselves or in concert with other institutions or other departments of the university)

– can be instrumental in pulling together specialty curriculums (again, this can be done without centers and this may add or detract from a school depending on its overall philosophy of the curriculum)

Anything else?  Are centers good or bad overall or is it institution-specific?  Are they mainly for marketing purposes or do the roots run deeper?

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1 Response

  1. joe says:

    I’m a big fan of multidisciplinary centers (and probably because I work at one!). One area that I think it’s safe to say legal research will need to evolve is in terms of data, methods and other more positivist science constructs. A center that brings that kind of expertise to a law school and also shares legal and policy smarts with other departments can do so much good. Anyway, I could say more but I’m one of the many spending the next year looking for a job in addition to my postdoc/fellowship. Please do report back if you get some interesting leads on this question.