Law faculties are starting to weigh in on proposed changes to the American Bar Association’s accreditation standards pertaining to tenure and other job protections.

The faculty of Georgetown University Law Center on March 2 unanimously approved a resolution opposing any change, saying that it would undermine the quality of legal education, academic freedom and faculty governance.

The changes also would “undermine the movement, long endorsed by Georgetown, to bring clinical professors, legal writing professors, and library directors into full membership of the academy,” the resolution reads.

Faculty at least two other law schools have adopted similar resolutions — Golden Gate University School of Law in September and again in February, and the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law in December. “The proposals continue to reflect an elimination of tenure which we feel is very dangerous,” said Golden Gate Associate Dean Kimberly Stanley. The Hawaii resolution said that faculty and staff “strongly and unequivocally oppose any and all modifications that would undercut the continued requirement that law schools have a tenure system in place.”

Tenure is important, in part, because it allows faculty members to support non-tenured colleagues, such as clinicians, without fearing for their jobs, said Hawaii Dean Avi Soifer.

The issue of faculty tenure and “security of position” at law schools has been heating up for the past year. The debate grew out of the ABA’s Standards Review Committee’s extensive evaluation of existing law school accreditation standards.

The 14-member committee has interpreted the existing standards to mean that faculty tenure never was a requirement for accreditation, as many legal academics believed.

“This draft retains, explicitly, the current policy that tenure is a fundamental and long honored method of attracting and retaining a qualified faculty and protecting faculty members’ rights of academic expression and opinions but that approved schools do not, as a matter of accreditation policy, have to offer all faculty members some form of tenure of position,” the committee wrote in comments that accompany its latest draft.

Deborah Epstein, an associate dean at Georgetown who helped spearhead the faculty resolution, said that the language of the current standards is somewhat vague but that it has always been interpreted to mean that tenure is required.

The draft proposal calls for law schools to have an “established and implemented policy that provides protection for the academic freedom of its faculty in exercising their teaching responsibilities,” but eliminates an existing reference to tenure. It also eliminates the language that “a law school shall afford to full-time clinical faculty members a form of security of position reasonably similar to tenure.”

Members of the committee have said on numerous occasions that law schools would not abandon the tenure system simply because of a change in the standards because tenure is a longstanding tradition.

Several legal education organizations have lined up against the proposed changes, including the Society of American Law Teachers and the Clinical Legal Education Association. The tenure issue was a topic of much discussion during the 2011 meeting of the Association of American Law Schools in January, but Epstein said that many law professors still don’t understand what is happening and what is at stake.

“Taken together, these changes are dramatic and will have an enormous impact on the quality of legal education,” she said. “The process has been deeply problematic, and I hope the Georgetown resolution will prompt other schools to become aware of what’s going on and how rapidly these changes will be considered and possibly implemented.”

The committee is scheduled to meet in Chicago on April 2 to consider its latest drafts of the accreditation standards. It is scheduled to post those drafts to the ABA’s Web site by March 15. The committee — which has been criticized by some for not allowing public comments during its most recent meetings — will hold a formal public comments session on April 2.
 
Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.