You can't call Frank Wu, the dean of The University of California Hastings College of the Law, a wimp. While other law deans talk and talk about the crisis in legal education, Wu is doing something radical about it: He's reducing enrollment at Hastings by 20 percent—a whopping 240 students over the next three years!
Why is Wu taking such drastic action? And how did he manage to do so without an uprising?
I posed those questions to Wu recently when he visited New York. Over drinks at the very crowded bar at The Modern restaurant of The Museum of Modern Art, Wu chatted about the changes at Hastings—and a host of other random topics. Following is Wu's views on legal education. (In a future post, I'll probe his views about being an iconoclastic Asian American leader.)
Cutting 20 percent of the entering class is not a small snip. The vast majority of schools that have announced cuts are taking a much more gradual approach—like 10 students a year. But you're eliminating a whole section. Why major surgery instead of a little nip and tuck?
You have to reduce by a whole section or there's no real benefit. My view is that there's a profound structural change in the legal market, but law schools are still producing students like it's the same old market. Applications are down by 30 percent nationwide. We'll see a 40 to 50 percent drop in applicants in the coming years. . . . Even in boom times, elite firms only hired from a small number of law schools. We should have downsized 25 years ago.
I'm sure you can find people to fill those slots—Hastings is a top 50 law school in a dream city [San Francisco]. If bottom-ranking law schools in the middle of nowhere have no problems filling their classes, why should you worry?
Hastings gets 5,000 applications a year, and we admit a quarter of them. It's not a question of whether we could fill the class. It's that society and students would be angry with me if we did. We can fill the class, but it would be irresponsible. It's like the housing market: People shouldn't take a subprime debt on a house just because it's available. Nor should people buy into an education that's too big and expensive for them.
I guess you don't have warm feelings about all those new law schools popping up.
Law schools have grown by one school a year. This is not good for society. Someone should put a stop to it. Every college looks around and says, "there's not a law school within 250 miles from here, and we need one."
Those new schools must envy Hastings's position; they probably think you are crazy. You have to be losing a ton of money with this proposition.
It's not easy. No CEO reduces revenue by $9 million a year. Do the math: 240 students times $46,500 in tuition. Now subtract out financial aid and multiply three-quarters of the [total] tuition by 240, and you get a big, big number.
How can you afford to do this? Are you cutting down on teachers?
No, the faculty is not touched. I reorganized the staff. I had a payroll of 275 people, and 75 were faculty. Seven people took separation agreements; 10 were laid off [because] their jobs were eliminated; 10 people were reduced to part-time; and four-and-a-half open positions were closed.
That sounds messy. How did you manage to push this through without people storming the Bastille?
I got the board and the faculty to support me. This is the most collegial faculty in the world. . . . We are structurally unique. We are part of the [University of California] system, but we're independently governed. I don't report to the regent. I'm the chancellor, the boss. I run the whole campus. We have total autonomy, which is why we're able to do this. . . . In most law schools, deans are middle management [to the university].
Left to their own devices, do you think most law school deans would like to do what you've done?
I have been contacted by dozens of other law schools that have expressed curiosity and interest. I'm very lucky, because 90 percent of law schools are part of a large institution where the financial arrangements make it almost impossible to make cuts. Most law schools are profit centers for the university.
Hastings has gotten a lot of positive attention for cutting its class. Isn't the irony that your applications might rise as a result?
Yeah, yeah. The publicity has been unbelievable. But what the press missed out on is that this is not a reaction to the bad job market. It is forward-looking. We spent a year studying this. I've been at this since it started. It's part of a larger effort to reboot legal education. My view is that the marketplace is rapidly changing, and that pedagogy is going online and taking an interdisciplinary approach. I'm betting my career on this.