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I’ve been wanting to write a series of posts on the ethics of admissions and its connection to operating models since I began this blog a few months ago.  While there is lots of talk about one or the other, they are rarely brought together in the sense of recognizing how embedded the ethical choices of institutions—and their consequences—are in the construction of their program and college business models. Acknowledging the ethics of a business model—yes, business models are ethics-laden—implies a stakeholder, or corporate social responsibility (CSR) view. 

For a long time, though, institutions of higher education have made their operational decisions largely on the basis of internal interests. We could argue about whether what is going on now in terms of business model collapse is essentially chickens coming home to roost—the inevitable outcome of blindedness and self-interest.  And maybe warn about what is yet to come in other areas such as medical research. But for now I’m most interested in looking at recent movements—some coerced, some bravely self-initiated, to consider the ethical connection between admissions and business models. So far, the most explicit has been going on in graduate and professional education.

In the “coerced” category, the poster child is law schools. One could say this is a case of the market, and in response the government, saying “enough” and forcing change. While it can seem sudden, like most sources of change the problems did not arise overnight, but are the cumulative effect of a gradual process. Law schools, like business schools, underwent a “Flexnerization”—a specific effort to become more scientific and empirical as a strategy to drive out lower, practitioner-driven forms—in the late 60s on; the reports from the middle decades of the 20th century, such as the 1968 Rutgers “Law School of Tomorrow,” reflect contentious debate and an awareness of what might be the negative outcomes; by the time of the 2007 Carnegie report with its meaningful title (Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Practice), many concerns had become a reality. And a funny thing happened along the way: the lower-tier schools were not driven out—indeed, like their business school counterparts they thrived by the promise of credentials and high earnings—and the upper tier schools have lost much of their market in the recession—a market that may never return, in part because the narrow tasks performed by even highly paid associates can be performed more cheaply overseas or through an agency (and, increasingly, by a computer), and because firms themselves are restructuring the way they practice.

The precipitous 20% drop in law school applications this past year and 46% over the past 10 years is really just a wake-up call to the question of what value—and for whom—a legal education provides. This is both the ethical and the business model question. If a law school graduate is certified to, but does not know how to, practice law, that is actually far worse than the fact that there are fewer available legal jobs than we would like at any given time. She can’t practice competently on her own or as an individual contributor in a small firm; she doesn’t know how. Add debt to the mix, he can’t even think about a scenario under which he could start out modestly and build a practice. His transferable skills for gaining a position outside of a law firm are far less than if he had been exposed to the hands-on, nitty gritty workings of a complex system. Her earnings potential, clearly, is inhibited by the commodification of the degree itself.

Now all kinds of proposals are in the works to redesign legal education. They will not help any of the recently minted out-of-work lawyers, and several, from the idea of “simplifying” the bar and the suggestion that juniors go directly to law school (you must be kidding) to the proposal for legal technicians seem, yet again, designed primarily from the internal perspective of self-preservation of law schools themselves and do not address the inherent conflict between law school admissions practices and traditional business models (and prepare for the kind of political conflict such as with physicians and nurse-practitioners). A few ideas move a little toward a positive direction, such as changing (“loosening” does not seem the right way to think about this change) accreditation to allow much-needed experiential components (there is some evidence that emphasis on teaching the practice of law yields higher bar scores). Hastings has cut its entering class by 20%. But more needs to be done. For example, it is surprising, given the field’s historical educational practice of “reading the law,” to not hear any suggestions that much of the early or foundation work could be accomplished online, even through some form of low-cost MOOCs shared across institutions to take prior to, and certified for, admission (which would also potentially draw a wider public). Or that law schools (and this is an old idea, actually), broaden its mission to provide legal education across the university and community in ways that do not involve a terminal degree (beyond current LLM degrees). The law is such a near-universally valuable area of knowledge; by thinking from the outside in, a closer fit between who is served, what a legal education is, and how it is generated could be developed. It means big change to the benefit of students, and perhaps to the detriment of some within law schools, but it also means survival.

In the self-initiated change category, the humanities have taken the lead in recognizing the need to recalibrate their admissions and programs for doctoral students; as big picture people, and, well, as humanists, this is not surprising, and they have been thinking and talking about it for a number of years. It is particularly tricky in these fields to balance student interests with institutional needs, as they rely heavily on their doctoral students for teaching introductory and general education courses.  The explicit recognition of this tension between ethical obligations and business model is a first (and proactively responsible) step to bringing them closer together; Stanford University is seeking to lead the way with its 5-year PhD program. And of course, historians know a trend when they see it. The American Historical Association has been an early and vocal voice in trying to rethink history doctoral education from the perspective of students and the larger and ever-changing environment, in part by considering the nature of the field itself.

Whether coerced or self-initiated, major changes are coming to graduate and professional education. They are going to reflect a balance between internal and external needs, and bring CSR to the academy. It takes a lot of creativity to integrate a philosophy of ethical obligation into a profitable business model. But it builds trust and relationship, a key to sustainable performance through volatile times. If you have a creative idea for how to do forge this balance, please share. 

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