Haskell Murray argues that big tent academic conferences offer law professors a number of benefits:
Teaching. At most conferences I attend, I attend at least one panel on pedagogy. In addition, many of the panels provide new material for classes. Also, fellow professors may be more willing to share teaching materials, which can be invaluable, if they have met you in person at a conference.
Service. Conferences are often the hub for discipline-related service. Many, if not most, of my external service opportunities have come from other professors I met at conferences.
Research. You can receive excellent comments on your papers at conferences and are much more likely to get other professors to review your work if you have met them in person. Also, a number of the people who have cited my work are people I met at conferences.
Professional Development. Much of our time as professors is spent with students, who are usually not experts in our subject areas. Even most of our colleagues are not experts in our specific research areas. Conferences give professors a chance to test themselves against other experts in their areas, which can lead to significant professional development.
Inspiration. I tend to return from conferences inspired and refreshed. Seeing the successes of my colleagues at other schools encourages me to be more efficient and improve in all areas.
Community. Academic community often grows from conferences. Blogs, social media, listservs, e-mail, and phone calls can sustain the community, but I think it is relatively difficult to be truly plugged into the broader academic community without at least a few in-person meetings with other professors.
Compensation. Frankly, I count funding for conferences as part of my compensation. A school without funding for conferences would likely have to pay more in salary if it did not provide funding for conferences. Also, payment for conferences usually amounts to a relatively small portion of total faculty compensation.
Rankings. Many school rankings depend, at least in part, on peer reputation. In the U.S. News law school rankings, for example, peer reputation is actually the single most heavily weighted factor. I don’t think schools should chase rankings just for the sake of the rankings, but improving rankings can impact things that matter (recruiting intelligent students, attracting recruiters to campus, and making (generous) alums happy, etc.) I’m not sure how much schools spend on those glossy brochures they send to other schools, chasing peer reputation, but I am much more likely to think well of another school if I hear a good presentation from one of their faculty members than if I see an impressive looking pamphlet in my mailbox.
I don't buy it. Back in 2010, I wrote that:
Anticipating the forthcoming annual meeting of the Association of American law schools at the end of this week, Trey Drury poses the following question: When Did the AALS Become an Issue Advocacy Organization, or Does the AALS Really Think New Orleans Health Care Workers are Bigots?
The short answer is that the AALS is a typical example of the modern academic organization: It's not a learned society. instead, it's basically an association of left-liberal busybodies who care mostly about two things; to wit, (1) maintaining their cartel and (2) politically correct, multicultural identity politics.
Some of us have been around long enough to have gone down this road at least once before. As recently as 2008, for example, there was an enormous controversy within the AALS because, as David Bernsteinrecounts, "because the owner of one of the hotels [at which the conference was being held], Doug Manchester, donated $125,000 to to support an initiative banning same-sex marriage in California." Other highlights of the AALS' ideological crusades include:
- The 1990 decision to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in its member law schools, which had the effect of requiring law schools to ban military recruiters and also complicated life for some religiously-affiliated law schools
- The AALS' continuing refusals to allow the National Association of Scholars, the Federalist Society, or the Christian Law Professors Fellowship to hold their functions at annual meeting hotels or to advertise them in the program
- The AALS' opposition to the Solomon Amendment
- The AALS' opposition to Proposition 209 and similar litigation and referendum challenges to affirmative action
- The AALS' insistence on racial and gender diversity in selecting speaker panels, while ignoring intellectual diversity
- The AALS' hostility to institutional pluralism, which has sometimes resulted in heavy handed enforcement of certain accreditation standards on religiously-affiliated law schools
I'm not the only curmudgeon who thinks the AALS is driven by left-liberal ideology. In a January 3, 2000, Washington Post op-ed, Charles Fried wrote that:
The central theme of the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), which begins this week in Washington, is "A Recommitment to Diversity." The only plenary panel consists of the head of Bill Clinton's civil rights division, a gay rights and disability rights activist, a former lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and a critical race theorist.
All estimable people, and in a sense quite diverse, but in case you didn't get the point the program announces, "In the last several years, an assault has been launched against diversity efforts. Court decisions . . . as well as statewide referenda . . . have limited affirmative action and diversity efforts. These actions go to the very heart of the diversity goals of the AALS."
Of course the term "affirmative action" means racial preferences, and "diversity" means diversity as defined by the racist census categories enshrined in much of our preferential and set-aside legislation and programs. As the roster of speakers and topic announcement make clear, diversity certainly does not mean -- though this is supposed to be a meeting of scholars and intellectuals -- diversity of ideas or points of view, unless your idea of diversity is the full gamut of opinions from left to far left.
The AALS approach is striking because meeting at the same time in the same city, the law teachers sections of the Federalist Society and the National Association of Scholars -- both routinely dismissed as "right-wing" and "conservative" -- have mounted discussions of related topics that are genuinely and studiedly diverse in the only sense relevant to academic discourse: diverse in the points of view presented.
But these groups are prohibited from meeting in the same hotel as the AALS or publicizing their panels in its literature (as is the Christian Law Society). On the other hand the avowedly leftist Society of American Law Teachers is welcomed to the party with full courtesies.
A decade later, those groups are still banned and the AALS idea of diversity still runs only from "left to far left."
In his essay Legal Education's "Learned Society," Professor Erik Jensen "discusses the politicization of the Association of American Law Schools as evidenced by two events: the 2000 Annual Meeting of the Association and a fracas that occurred during the author's tenure as an editor of the Journal of Legal Education, published by AALS."
I wish I had ideas about how AALS could be reestablished as an apolitical organization, but I don’t. The positions that AALS takes reflect generally popular ideas in the legal academy; they’ve been institutionalized within American law schools one-by-one (with a few exceptions) and within the organization that represents nearly all of those schools.
But I can suggest a starting point for moving in the right direction: trying to appear fair. AALS meetings should be open to all organizations dealing with legal education, and AALS should be willing to publicize the programs of alternative organizations. If AALS is going to continue its current exclusionary policy for Annual Meetings, it should be forced to defend that policy publicly in a substantive way. And AALS officials shouldn’t accept charges of racism without at least pretending to afford procedural protections to the accused parties.
None of those suggestions should be controversial. That each would be resisted unfortunately says a great deal about the Association of American Law Schools today.
That none of these proposals have been implemented a decade later says even more. After all, as Fried concluded:
Intellectuals have influence only if they have fresh ideas to respond to fresh realities, and the fortress mentality reflected in this pathetic performance of the AALS cannot possibly produce anything new. Those who highhandedly would design a program such as this and propose it as a serious academic exercise hope somehow to exert influence. Instead they discredit themselves and condemn their voices to irrelevance.
And in 2012 I wrote that:
At Prawfs, Dan Rodriguez comments:
What are your good ideas for the AALS as an organization going forward, especially in these remarkably difficult times for legal education? I have the opportunity to play a leadership role in the association for the next little while (being nominated as president-elect at the upcoming annual meeting). My sense is that we can do much better as a group in furthering the myraid objectives of the law professoriate. Moreover, I would like to use my (small) bully pulpit to advance objectives that are critical to our collective future.
I have various thoughts to be sure. What are yours?
The best thing we could do with the AALS is to disband it:
- It helps the ABA maintain the law school monopoly on legal training, which perpetuates the lawyer monopoly on provision of legal services.
- It creates a monoculture in which all law schools are obliged to comply with an ever growing set of rules. Schools with particular reasons for differentiating themselves from the pack, such a religiously affiliated schools, face pressure to conform to the standard left-liberal, secular humanist model that informs AALS policies and politics. As such, the AALS lacks any real room for institutional pluralism.
- Speaking of politics, it serves mainly as a talking forum for left-liberals (most of whom are so well paid that they're in the top 1 or 2 %) to whine about how they're victimized by society.
- It does a really lousy job of serving as a learned society.
I can't think of one useful thing the AALS does except to provide a massive schmooze fest for faculty to network at taxpayer and student expense. And while that's fun, it doesn't justify the organization's existence.
Again from 2012:
Solango Maldonado identifies a couple of AALS annual meeting panels that are sure to be "informative and engaging." Richard Albert can barely constrain his excitement: "The AALS has assembled a terrific program. There are so many panels I can't count them all!"
I haven't been to every AALS annual meeting since I joined the profession back in 1988, but I've been to a lot ... and can count the number of "informative and engaging" panels I've seen on the fingers of one hand.
I've come to agree with Brian Leiter:
Complaints about the AALS are legion among law professors: the organization's relentless political correctness (without regard to the diversity of views among its members), its inability to stage real scholarly conferences, and its intrusive, and again largely politically motivated (when not cartel-motivated!), regulation of law schools. ...
Complaints about the AALS annual meeting are particularly common, such as this one from a prolific young scholar about the recent meeting Atlanta:
"The panels were okay, though I think I'd prefer the format of real academic conferences. Trying to be timely produces pretty half-baked comments, in my opinion. I mean, is a four person, three hour discussion about Guantanamo Bay going to change any minds or shed significant light on the relevant constitutional issues? Hardly."
Panels in which speakers haven't prepared papers, and in which they appear to have only thought about the topic ten minutes earlier, are all too common.
I also mostly agree with Orin Kerr:
Over at Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, Brian comments on the upcoming Association of American Law Schools January meeting for law professors: "[M]y sense is that specialist meetings of scholars have completely displaced the AALS as the destination of choice for those looking for conferences with intellectual content. Am I wrong?" Brian is quite right. This year's panels look unusually good, but in past years I've been significantly underwhelmed.
Of course, that doesn't mean the AALS January meeting has no purpose at all. As I see it, it serves at least five critical purposes, in descending order of importance: (1) It provides law professors with an all-expenses paid trip to the city where the conference is being held (this year, New York); (2) It provides professors an opportunity to sample the culinary delights of that city (figures Solove would be way ahead of me there); (3) For conservatives and libertarians, it provides a trip to the Federalist Society's shadow conference, always held near the AALS meeting and generally rich in intellectual content (and always with lots of co-conspirators); (4) For blog readers, it puts you in town for the annual CoOp/Prawfs happy hour; and (5) It provides a chance to roll your eyes at the bland and meaningless theme the conference organizers come up with, this year being "Reassessing Our Roles as Scholars and Educators in Light of Change." Uh huh.
As for Orin's positive reasons, the drawback of point # 1 is that the AALS mostly rotates within a very limited number of cities and after 22 years in the business I've been to almost all of them. Plus, it's a crappy time of year for vacations. Point # 2 holds mostly for New Orleans. Point 3 is perfectly true. Point 4 doesn't apply to those of us who are antisocial. Point 5 is true, but can also been done in the comfort of your home institution's faculty lounge.
So what do you think: Is the AALS annual meeting "informative and engaging" or a major league suckfest?