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Event Information
2009 Annual Meeting
Date: January 6 — 10, 2009
Location: San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina
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Institutional Pluralism

The AALS is an association of self-governing intellectual communities.  Member schools are expected to adhere to our core values of teaching, scholarship, academic freedom, and diversity.  But within the wide space bounded by those values our members are very different kinds of institutions.  There are 72 state schools that play special roles in the legal communities of their sponsoring states.  There are 49 religiously affiliated law schools whose missions are defined or influenced by particular faiths.  There are law schools at historically black colleges and universities that have their own special commitments; and schools whose intellectual efforts are governed by a particular point of view (like law and economics) or directed at a particular subject matter (environmental law, or intellectual property).  This year’s theme focuses on the value of our institutional differences.

Institutional pluralism is a good thing for our students in the same way choices are good for consumers in other fields.  It may also contribute in an important way to a healthy intellectual life.  Progress in the life of the mind is a cultural achievement.  A community of scholars working on the same problem, or in the same idiom, may accomplish things a group of disconnected individuals could not.  (Think of the Manhattan Project, or fin de siècle Vienna.)  The Association should cherish the interests of its members in pursuing these ends.


At the same time there are powerful market and regulatory norms that push law schools toward uniformity.  The ABA accreditation process uses one set of standards that it asks all institutions to conform to.  The U.S. News ranking system uses another linear measure.  Law firms who hire our graduates rely on simple tools like rankings as an index of quality.  These forces may impede, or even frustrate, schools’ efforts to cultivate their own distinctive identities.  


The AALS might also want to reflect on the issue of institutional variety in its own affairs.  We now see, around AALS annual meetings, a number of parallel organizations concerned with particular points of view.  The Federalist Society and the Society of American Law Teachers are just two examples.  Should the Association (like some of its members) cultivate a particular set of interests or values, and leave it to other organizations to develop opposing points of view  Or is the proper analogy something more like Congress – a single body comprising different members but representing all possible approaches.

John Garvey, AALS President and  Boston College

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