George W. Dent, Jr. is Professor of Law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) enjoys a unique status in higher education. Although membership is not required for accreditation of a law school, the AALS works closely on law school inspections with the American Bar Association, whose approval is necessary for accreditation. And AALS membership is necessary for respectability, so only a few strictly local schools eschew it. Thus the AALS’s standards for membership and payment of its fees are de facto mandatory for serious law schools.
Although its members are schools, not scholars, the AALS also serves (in its own words) “as the academic society for law teachers.” There is no other umbrella organization of law scholars. The AALS has over ninety subject matter sections that facilitate networking among scholars and run programs that offer a prestigious platform for legal scholars and inform academics about current scholarship in their fields.
As appropriate to its quasi-governmental status, the AALS nods toward non-partisanship. Its by-laws state that it “expects its member schools to value . . . diversity of viewpoints.” Unfortunately, this commitment has been pure window-dressing. In its law school inspections the AALS often criticizes schools for lack of racial or gender diversity, and it makes a big issue of sexual-orientation diversity, but it never criticizes schools for lack of political diversity.
This is not because law faculties reflect the political diversity of the nation. Empirical evidence confirms the obvious; law faculties tilt overwhelmingly to the left. And in its own programs the AALS displays the same bias. An announcement about the 2016 annual meeting included a list of thirteen scheduled “Speakers of Note.” One or two of them might be considered moderate or non-political, but all others were liberals or radicals; not one was a conservative or libertarian.
Because of the dearth of conservatives and libertarians on law faculties and AALS programs, I have been involved for over four years with several other law professors in trying to get the AALS to take its commitment to viewpoint diversity seriously. The recent Presidents (a new president is chosen every year) and the Executive Director have met with some of us, and they have been models of cordiality and have discussed our issues seriously.
Until recently, however, the Executive Committee, which effectively controls the AALS, rejected every one of our requests, including one for the creation of a task force to look into viewpoint diversity and make recommendations. It refused even to meet with us.
We also requested access for scholarly research to the Faculty Appointments Register (“FAR”). The AALS serves as the hiring hall for law professors. Nearly all new hires submit a form to the FAR. Several years ago the AALS gave access to the FAR to a couple of liberal scholars who used it for an empirical study that was later published. There were no violations of applicant confidentiality. However, when a conservative scholar requested equal access, the AALS changed its rules and forbade all access on grounds of applicant confidentiality. Although protocols to protect confidentiality are often used without problems in many fields of research, the AALS still denies all access.
Officers of the AALS say they have worked to improve viewpoint diversity on its programs, and I believe them. However, since we are not included in these efforts and no metrics are offered, we can only eyeball lists of program participants, in which we can see no change.
The announcement of the 2016 Speakers of Note showed the same old bias. When we pointed this out to the AALS, it revised the list and added a few conservatives who are scheduled to speak in ordinary section programs. Of course, the AALS did not originally consider these program panelists to be Speakers of Note. Evidently it culled program schedules to find a few conservatives. However, the 200 programs have 800 participants. If all the panelists from the left were named, the list would run to many pages.
Recently, there has been some change. The Executive Committee agreed to meet with us in January, and the incoming president invited me to serve on the committee that will plan the program for the 2017 Annual Meeting. These are welcome steps, but how far will change go? I believe that some members of the Executive Committee take our concerns seriously, but if it strives for real viewpoint diversity it will meet opposition from many law professors for whom left-wing bias in faculty hiring and program planning is deeply ingrained.
Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to put any pressure on the AALS. We can’t resign. Again, the members of the AALS are not law scholars but law schools, and membership is de facto essential, so we can’t impair the AALS’s membership income.
There are registration fees for scholars to attend the annual meeting and other conferences. However, many law schools (including my own) pay for attendance at the AALS meeting separately, on top of general research allotments. I can skip the AALS meeting (and withhold my registration fee), but I can’t use the money saved for something else. Accordingly, many conservative scholars attend the AALS meeting because it’s a free trip, even though they’re rarely welcome to speak on a program.
One might think that conservative state lawmakers would oppose state law schools’ paying hefty fees to a partisan left-wing organization. But as a member of the NAS for thirty years, I have finally realized that conservative lawmakers either don’t care about academia or consider it a lost cause.
This is disastrously short-sighted. Most state colleges and universities now serve as political action committees for the left, and their political spending dwarfs that of all other PACs, but lawmakers remain passive.
Meanwhile, we will pursue the recent initiatives by the AALS and hope that they produce real progress.
 What Is the AALS?, Association of American Law Schools, http://www.aals.org/about.php.
 Association of American Law Schools By-Laws § 6-1(b)(ii).
 See John O. McGinnis et al., The Patterns and Implications of Political Contributions by Elite Law School Faculty, 93 Georgetown Law Journal 1167 (2005).
 Tracey E. George & Albert H. Yoon, The Labor Market for New Law Professors, 11 J. Empirical Legal Studies 1 (2014).
 These included Judge Frank Easterbrook and Professors John Harrison (University of Virginia) and Henry Monaghan (Columbia).
Image Credit: Tony Webster, cropped.