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Why Is Hastings Law School Rushing to Cut Enrollment?

Vivia Chen

May 30, 2012

Hastings_Law_School_© D.C.Atty-Flickr.comYou 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.


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"This was not a popular decision at the school itself, and will likely negatively impact access to legal education for those set on serving the public interest. "

What good is "access to legal education" when there are no jobs waiting for those who sunk three years of their lives and over $100,000? The notion that the "public interest" is now subverted by the responsible rollback in student is beyond silly; there are not dozens and dozens of positions that will go unfilled. Further, no fresh graduate is going to be able to serve the unrepresented or the needy unless they are independnetly wealthy or are satisfied being one of those needy people themselves.

Wu made a responsible decision in cutting enrollment.

As a graduate of the class of 2012, I couldn't disagree more. Frank Wu was hired based on representations of his ability to raise funds for the school from alumni and other donors and his vision of the legal profession as interdisciplinary. The fundraising effort has completely failed and funds from these sources has actually decreased. As a result, the school is downsizing student services. While the science consortium is a positive step, one that predates Dean Wu, the growing tuition burden on students makes obtaining multiple degrees much less practical.

And, contrary to the suggestion of the article (but as Max pointed out previously), the students and staff did "storm the Bastille." The staff, with considerable faculty and student support, has organized several demonstrations; student outcry prompted a town hall meeting in which dozens of stakeholders vigorously expressed their concern and lack of faith in Wu's administration. But, ultimately, Dean Wu is correct: he can get away with whatever he wants because he runs the entire campus. It doesn't seem to matter what students think anymore, or if the school alienates entire classes of Hastings students, as long as the rankings can be artificially massaged upwards to lure in next year's suckers, I mean students.

Ultimately, student tuition is the source of almost all of the school's annual revenue, but students have little voice in the strategic vision of the school and their interests are subordinated to a rankings system (a tail wagging the dog) that will later be used as an "objective" measure of the dean's "success." To be fair, Hastings devotes a lot of its revenue to providing financial aid, including grants, but these have not kept pace with tuition increases. What would really help Hastings students is eliminating waste, such as outside consultants and contractors, rather than front-line service providers, and raising the profile of the school professionally through a more active plan for placing students in clerkships and other jobs. Hastings should take a cue from other law schools that have implemented innovative writing programs that make their students more marketable. In addition to developing consortia or mixed-degree programs in areas beyond medical science, the school needs to devote more resources to developing independent student scholarship and to the clinics and externships that give students practical legal experience and nurturing fledgling professional identity. One-sided pieces of pseudo-journalism make these goals even more difficult to realize by whitewashing what has been questionable leadership at best.

Please note that Dean Wu met with persistent student protest. This was not a popular decision at the school itself, and will likely negatively impact access to legal education for those set on serving the public interest. Not everything is about rankings and recruitment by large defense side firms. This is something that Dean Wu does not understand.

"following ARE Wu's views ..." (para. 3) . I has nothing else to says.

Hastings was too big to begin with. It is the largest (and most over-sized) law school in the UC system. For instance, Hastings population is around 1250 students, whereas UC Irvine law school has less than 300.

This school is not down-sized, it is finally being subject to a overdue correction. There is nothing exemplary about this reduction. The fact is that this should have happened 30 years ago.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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