An ABA committee’s proposal led legal news stories today. It was in regard to law school accreditation, but it may say something about trends in education generally.

The committee made what it thought was a finding of little fanfare. A generation of lawyers who thought that the ABA accreditation guidelines required law schools to have a tenure system in place was wrong, apparently.

Existing standards say “a law school shall have a comprehensive system for evaluating candidates for promotion and tenure or other forms of security of position.” The committee admits that language has been interpreted for years as meaning schools must have a tenure system. But that’s incorrect, they say.

Dean Donald Polden, Santa Clara Law School

Fair enough, you might say. Interpretations may have been flawed. So now the committee can fix the language to conform to commonly held beliefs.

Not so fast. Rather than reiterate the value of tenure in a university system, the committee has proposed the opposite: Omitting the concept entirely from their guidelines.

As the story continues, the Standards Review Committee, headed by Dean Donald Polden of Santa Clara University School of Law, “has floated a proposal that would eliminate the term ‘tenure’ from the ABA standards covering job security and academic freedom. The committee also wants to kill a requirement that law schools provide clinical faculty members with job protections similar to those enjoyed by full-time professors.”

Underlying that proposal is a radically revised view of the legal and educational world.

As the subcommittee wrote, “These arguably intrusive mandates are not the proper providence [sic] of an accreditation agency.”

“Intrusive”? The American Bar Association is concerned about being intrusive? Now THAT’S a news item.

Perish the thought. The largest association of lawyers in the world is not intrusive. It is merely a gathering of legal folk who enjoy a nice conversation, maybe some Port, and a little Parcheesi. The ABA does not seek to impose its thinking on others.

But the last time we checked, the entire point of accreditation is “mandates”—otherwise known as “values we adhere to.” Is the ABA out of the values business?

If they are interested in maintaining (and maybe even mandating) some values, they may want to take a closer look at the concept of tenure. Sure, it’s easy to opine that tenure does little for the educational process. But where do we think intellectual freedom resides? In the largesse of university administrators? In the benevolent auspices of accounting departments or development offices?

My own bone of contention with tenure is that faculty use it too rarely to speak truth to power, or to craft truly innovative research that addresses important issues. So what do we think will happen if tenure is eliminated? Will that get better?

My guess is that it will not spawn a renaissance of creativity.

In universities outside of law schools, attacks on tenure are growing more common. Administrators find opportunity in bad economic times to undermine the stakeholders who most often raise questions and insist on fair processes. Saying good-bye to tenure helps say good-bye to those uppity folk. Universities governed by the collective smarts of its faculty (think places like Oxford and Cambridge) are seen as Old-World antiquities.

To see that thinking sidle into law school governance is troubling. Let’s hope the ABA thinks hard about its next steps, and remembers it’s in the values business.

The complete story is here.