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Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Jul 17 / Robert Ackerman

The law of supply and demand.

Lincoln Caplan’s Observer column in Sunday’s New York Times (“An Existential Crisis for Law Schools”), while offering nothing new, provides a pretty accurate description of the challenges facing America’s law schools. To summarize: only 55% of 2011 law school graduates had obtained full-time jobs requiring a law degree nine months following graduation; only 67% had obtained full-time professional jobs of any kind. The problem is probably more structural than cyclical, as the market for legal services forces law firms to trim their staffs, outsource work not requiring full-time lawyers, and streamline routine work through the use of paralegals and computer software.

Potential law school applicants have read the handwriting on the wall. Nationwide, applications to law school this past year were down about 14%, as potential applicants recognize that a law degree is not an automatic ticket to riches. As I have stated previously, none of this should dissuade the conscientious student who has a genuine intellectual interest in the law, a passion for justice, and a desire to serve people. There will always be rewarding work for such people, although the “good” jobs are a little less likely to fall into the laps of the next generation of law students. Lest we delude ourselves, the highest paying entry-level jobs with the biggest firms never employed more than about 20% of any class of law school graduates. Now, as much as ever, law school applicants must approach the endeavor with their eyes open, fully attuned to the potential risks and rewards.

How should law schools respond to these challenges? First, law schools should admit classes commensurate in size with the applicant pool and the market for our graduates. Wayne Law is one of several law schools that have reduced their class size so as to maintain academic quality. As my predecessor, Frank Wu (now dean at Hastings College of Law) has said, it is irresponsible for law schools to continue to mint more lawyers than the legal employment market can bear. But the problem cannot be remedied through the conduct of a relative handful of law schools. It may be a little easier for the career services offices at Hastings and Wayne to help a smaller number of graduates find jobs, but the overall effect of our efforts on the apparent oversupply of lawyers is minimal if other law schools continue to expand their campuses and new law schools open their doors each year.

A reduction in class size is not without its financial consequences. If the law of supply and demand is to be believed, significant tuition increases cannot be used to make up the revenue shortfall. Economies are possible (and we have taken reasonable economies at Wayne Law), but one can go only so far in the face of the demand for increased academic support, career services, and the kind of low-enrollment courses needed to accommodate the demand for more skills training. The staffing of law schools is neither fungible nor fully flexible; like most academic institutions, we employ a highly skilled, mostly tenured workforce which can neither contract nor make radical programmatic adjustments on a dime. So as state legislatures continue to disinvest in public education, even state-supported law schools will have to look increasingly to the generosity of our alumni and other supporters to sustain high quality programs. For all but the most selective schools, the tuition gravy train is over.

Second, those law schools that wish to thrive will have to revise their academic programs to distinguish themselves from the pack and equip their students with essential practice skills. At Wayne Law, the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Public Interest Law Fellowships, and Pro Bono Program – plus a tradition of student activism – have set us apart as the leading public interest law school in the Great Lakes region. Our Program for International Legal Studies (which sponsors several International Public Interest Law Fellowships) has underscored our identified faculty expertise in international law. And the newly established Program for Entrepreneurship and Business Law is embarked on a course of extending one of our traditional strengths into business development (through, among other things, our Business and Community Law Clinic) and the burgeoning field of intellectual property law.

We have recently surveyed both leading practitioners and judges (the kind of people who hire lawyers) and fairly recent graduates to find out what they think we should be doing to better equip our students for practice. Overall, they thought we were doing a good job, but thought that law students would be better prepared for the world of practice – and more employable – if law schools devoted greater attention to legal writing skills. So that is what we shall do. Currently, several groups within our law school are working on the improvement of writing and related practice skills from a number of angles – creating new courses, reworking existing courses, and enhancing our overall program of academic support. It will not be a cakewalk for our students (or our faculty), but we should all emerge better for the effort.

We should also realize that the traditional JD degree need not be the only mission of a good law school. At Wayne Law, we have recently added an LLM Program in United States Law for the benefit of foreign lawyers. And we will be exploring whether businesspeople, human resources executives, health care personnel and others would benefit from some form of legal education short of a three-year JD degree.

What makes law such an intriguing profession is the ability of lawyers to reinvent themselves – to develop new skills, new lines of practice – and to find better ways to serve clients and the cause of justice. Likewise, law faculties must reinvent themselves. I remain unconvinced that legal education will go the way of the buggywhip. But we cannot be so enamored of an 1870’s template for legal education1 that we are unable to meet the challenges of the day.

Finally - I have previously reframed the problem of “not enough jobs for lawyers” as one of “perhaps not enough jobs, but plenty of work for lawyers.” We have an abundant supply of new lawyers, willing to serve the public for reasonable compensation. There are an untold number of potential consumers of legal services – small businesspeople, homeowners, families – in need of legal services, who have yet to tap into the supply. Law schools and bar associations should explore ways of linking supply to demand, providing employment for our recent graduates and serving the public as well. A handful of law schools (none in the Great Lakes region) have established law practice incubators in which recent law school graduates share office space and supplies, and the law school provides mentoring and other forms of expertise. We will be exploring this and other alternatives in the months to come. At Wayne Law, we are intent on being the solution, not the problem.

1 In 1870, Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School, brought the case method and Socratic dialogue to legal education, and that methodology remains the dominant – although not exclusive – form of legal education to this day.

Mar 6 / Robert Ackerman

IBR to the rescue?

Ashley Fisher, a student at Wayne Law, has posed a fair question: How are law school graduates supposed to reconcile a desire to serve underrepresented people with the need to pay off substantial student loan debt? One answer may be the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Plan for federal student loans. IBR caps monthly payments at an amount intended to be affordable based on income and family size. As a general proposition, repayment is capped at 15% of discretionary income (adjusted gross income minus an amount based on family size). After 25 years, the remaining debt is forgiven (10 years if the borrower has been engaged in public service). There is talk in the Obama Administration about making the terms more favorable. Lest I mislead people with this rather simplistic description of IBR, see http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/IBRPlan.jsp. Professor Philip Schrag of Georgetown Law is an expert on IBR; some helpful articles he has written or co-authored can be found at 36 Hofstra L.Rev. 27 (2007) and 60 J. Legal Educ. 583 (2011).

One can see how even a student with significant debt can manage repayment through IBR. A recent law school graduate could take on a modestly-paying job or even hang out her own shingle (a daunting proposition for some, but one which might be ameliorated through supports like mentoring and office-sharing), make a modest income, remain current on loan payments, and still have enough left over to live decently (though not luxuriously).

What’s the downside? I see two potential problems:

1. Interest continues to accrue on loans during repayment. In some instances, the monthly repayment may be too small to cover interest, let alone retire principal. So the balance of the loan might increase over time. This may be tolerable, if the borrower is able to increase earnings over time, so as to move over to the plus side of the ledger, or if the borrower devotes ten years to public service, at which time the loan is forgiven. But for people (like me) who do not like to be in debt, an increase in the loan balance even as one is working to pay off the loan may be regarded as undesirable.

2. IBR potentially represents a tremendous federal subsidy to student loans. At some point, Congress may decide that a debt-plagued government can no longer afford to finance this venture.

And so while it may be helpful to some, IBR is not a panacea. I encourage students to investigate the possibility, but to determine how it applies to your circumstances, and use with caution.

So what about tuition? I wish I could say that Wayne Law takes in thousands of dollars of surplus tuition, and that we could take the simple step of lowering tuition, or at least putting the brakes on future tuition increases. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Most of our tuition goes to long-term, fixed costs, like salaries. Other costs, like operating expenses (supplies, travel, equipment, etc.) have already been significantly reduced in the recent series of legislatively-imposed budget cuts. Could we pare down more? Possibly. But we cannot take significant cuts without slashing programs that inure to our students’ benefit. As between charging a little less tuition and maintaining the current level of Career Services staffing and programming, Public Interest Law Fellowships, a Program for International Legal Studies, and new clinics in Transnational Environmental Law and Asylum and Immigration Law (to cite just a few examples), we’ve chosen to do the latter – that is, to support programs that position our students to succeed in the legal marketplace. We think this helps our students in the long run.

I have heard many law deans share the same lament: at a time during which we are asked to keep a lid on tuition, we are also being asked to provide more training in the skills demanded by our profession, typically through costly programs like clinics. Law firms no longer have the luxury of providing much in the way of in-house training, so they look to law schools to provide more practice skills training during the three or so years we have. (At the same time, some cost-conscious critics are calling for reducing law school to two years.) Our faculty will continue to develop offerings conducive to professional skills development; the trick will be to do so within our current budget envelope, so as not to impose an additional cost burden on our students.

We will continue to appeal to our alumni and friends to pass on the benefit of a Wayne education to our students through increased philanthropy. They are a generous group, so I hope some of them are reading this, and are motivated accordingly.

Feb 27 / Robert Ackerman

Are we equal to the challenge?

The critique of legal education in blogs, newspapers and professional journals has reached a crescendo. David Segal of The New York Times has replaced Robert Morse of U.S. News in the eyes of many law deans as the ogre of American legal journalism.  I can’t say I admire Mr. Segal’s journalistic style, but there is more than a kernel of truth in what appears to be his main thesis: Law schools are producing a lot of graduates, carrying a lot of debt, and there are not enough jobs to employ all the graduates or retire the debt.  According to some reports, in the immediate future the economy will produce approximately 25,000 new legal jobs per year, but law schools will produce approximately 45,000 new lawyers annually, presumably scrambling to fill those jobs.

Our recent experience at Wayne Law would seem to belie these figures; approximately 80% of our 2010 graduates obtained jobs for which a law degree is either required or preferred within nine months of graduation.  Another 5% landed other professional work.  (Needless to say, we’d like to do better in the form of legal employment for the remaining 15%.)  Still, both the employment projections and the lamentations of scores of out-of-work bloggers are cause for great concern.  And the market has responded: recent reports suggest a 16% national decline in law school applications, a phenomenon to which Wayne Law has not been immune.

At Wayne, we can respond to a decline in the applicant pool by adjusting our class size (although this is not without its cost).  But while this measure can help preserve the quality of our student body, it has little effect on the overall supply of lawyers — not when new law schools and new law school campuses continue to open in our region and nationwide. Some critics of legal education believe that the American Bar Association should limit the supply of lawyers by accrediting fewer law schools, but such a course of action would have serious anticompetitive implications.  Others suggest just the opposite — that the ABA should ease up on its accreditation requirements, thereby reducing the cost of law school and, presumably, the accumulation of debt. But this would hardly reduce the perceived glut of lawyers on the market.

I would like to suggest a different frame for this perceived oversupply of lawyers.  Perhaps there are not enough jobs for all the lawyers out there.  But there is plenty of legal work: work for the millions of people who have serious legal problems but go unrepresented or under-represented.  Too many people stumble through divorces, evictions, and real estate closings without representation; too many families and small businesses undergo unnecessary strife for lack of a properly-drafted will or contract.  Proper representation would save them money — and quite a bit of distress — in the long run.  And many new lawyers would love to represent such individuals and businesses for a relatively small fee. That so many deserving people lack adequate legal representation in a country with so many lawyers could be regarded as a national disgrace.

I would rather see the problem in simple economic terms — as a market failure.  Willing sellers of legal services have failed to attract the attention of potential buyers of these services.  Our profession is capable of addressing this market failure: by easing barriers to entry, by establishing law practice incubators (much as the medical profession provides residencies for newly-minted doctors), by better informing the public about the value and availability of legal services, by considering ways we can create marriages between consumers and providers of legal services.  Several law schools, including Wayne, have begun to think about the role we might play in this regard.  It is a challenging time for law schools and the legal profession, but not one without its opportunities.

Nov 14 / Robert Ackerman

Who is Penn State?

The news from State College, Pennsylvania during the past week saddens me. I served for nine years on the faculty of The Pennsylvania State University; prior to that time, I was involved in the early phase of negotiations that would lead to the merger of the once-independent Dickinson School of Law with Penn State. I supported the merger (and continue to think that it was a good idea) because it would allow law students and faculty to more fully avail themselves of the multidisciplinary resources of a world class university. I must also admit to an expectation that the halo effect of affiliation with a Big Ten school and its storied football program would improve the law school’s rankings, an expectation that has been realized over the past decade.

The disturbing events of the past week reinforce my long-held impression that there are really two Penn State Universities. One Penn State is the school characterized by a frat-boy mentality, in which football is king and boorish behavior (evidenced by the student riots that followed the announcement of Joe Paterno’s termination) is the norm. This Penn State is typified by a culture in which dissent is barely tolerated and honest disagreement with an administrator is characterized as disloyalty to the institution. In such a culture, it is not surprising that even an iconic football coach known as a molder of men failed to serve as a protector of boys by reporting “up the line” rather than notifying law enforcement authorities. Nor is it surprising that the natural response of administrators appears to have been conduct calculated to protect the institution rather than to protect children at risk.

But there is another Penn State. This is the Penn State in which dedicated faculty score breakthroughs in areas as diverse as pediatric medicine and materials engineering; in which the Law School’s Child Advocacy and Family Law Clinics protect children at risk of abuse; in which students raised $9.5 million earlier this year to fight childhood cancer; in which a legendary football coach contributed and raised additional millions for a library which bears his name. This is the Penn State we saw in Friday evening’s candlelight vigil in support of victims of abuse.

Legend has it that the cheer “We are Penn State” originated when Southern Methodist University, which was to meet Penn State’s football team in the 1948 Cotton Bowl, requested a meeting to protest the participation of Penn State’s two black players (one of whom was Wally Triplett, who would later play for the Detroit Lions and would be the first African-American to appear in the NFL). Team captain Steve Suhey is said to have responded, “We are Penn State. There will be no meetings.”

I would like to believe that the legend is true. And that the second Penn State I have described will win out over the first one. What will emerge is a university with a little less hubris, a little more introspection, and a little more balance between athletics and academics, a balance already struck here at Wayne State. Higher education could do a lot worse.

Sep 18 / Robert Ackerman

Team of Destiny?

I finally stopped second-guessing Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland about a week ago. That’s when he substituted third baseman Brandon Inge for Wilson Betamit (who was hitting about 100 points higher) in late innings with the score tied. “You don’t bring in a defensive replacement with the score tied,” I declared to my wife. That was shortly before Inge (who is struggling to cross the Mendoza Line[1]) hit a walk-off home run, extending a Tigers winning streak that would last 12 games.

Later in the week, Leyland would start the oft-injured and seldom-used veteran Carlos Guillen at second base; Guillen would merely collect three hits, including a home run and the eventual game-winner in the tenth inning. And on Friday night, Leyland pushed another button, starting the versatile but light-hitting Don Kelly at third base. Kelly hit a homer and knocked in two of the Tigers’ three runs in the win that clinched the American League Central Division for Detroit.

1968. 1984. 2011?

[1] The Mendoza Line is named after the hapless Mario Mendoza, who would perennially hit in the neighborhood of .200. I shouldn’t laugh; any day that Mr. Mendoza played in the Major Leagues is one more day than I have.

Jul 27 / Robert Ackerman

Law School Economics 103

Eric Berg’s comment deserves a thoughtful response. First, the withdrawal of state support is not a myth. Under Gov. Snyder’s budget, recently approved by the Legislature, Wayne State’s funding will be reduced by $32 million in the coming year. This funding must be accounted for through either a reduction in expenditures or an increase in tuition. We are doing both: reducing expenditures in a manner that does not impair the quality of our academic program, and raising tuition (accompanied by a commensurate increase in financial aid). Student debt weighs heavily on our minds here at Wayne, and I wish there was some other way to meet expenses without harming our academic program. We are certainly open to ideas. Michiganders and others who would squeeze the public sector should realize there is no free lunch: either we pay for state-supported education through our taxes, or we tax our students through higher tuition.

One assertion I will refute unequivocally: The law school has no “plan to increase tuition in rough parity with other Michigan schools.” We pride ourselves in being the best legal education value in Michigan, and intend to stay that way.

The New York Times asserts (in an article focusing on an independent law school) that law schools are cash cows for their universities, but the fact is that, due to what remains of the state subsidy, Wayne Law still gets back more than it takes in from its students. We will continue to work with the University to increase our share, but in the long run our economic well-being, along with that of an increasing number of public schools, will depend on our philanthropic efforts. Plans are underway for a comprehensive campaign, and we hope that our alumni and other supporters will recognize that we are deserving of their support, based on both public spiritedness and enlightened self-interest.

We will continue to expand our faculty as the need and ability arises. We do not apologize that a new faculty member who will fill a need in the core area of civil procedure also has an interest in American Indian law. We are a professional school, not a trade school, and our students benefit from a faculty with wide-ranging interests and the ability to teach them to solve a variety of problems, arising in novel situations. Law school is often criticized for not teaching students how to find their way to the courthouse. But the courthouse can be moved. It is more important that we teach our students how to read the map, so that they are competent to find whatever courthouse (or other problem-solving methodology) is appropriate to the occasion.

Mr. Berg’s observations regarding the inverse consequences of law school financial aid go to a matter that has troubled me for some time. While there is only a rough correlation between credentials-based financial aid, performance in law school, and job placement, there is reason to believe that the shift to credentials-based financial aid in legal education over the past 30 years often results in the students who have the least debt obtaining the highest-paying jobs, and vice-versa. We could, theoretically, shift to a purely need-based system or we could reduce tuition for all students by a few thousand dollars (say, to around $20,000 per year). The likely result, however, would be a decline in the quality of our class and a commensurate decline in our rankings, something Mr. Berg admits he does not wish to see. As I’ve said before, law schools try to improve their rankings by offering scholarships to the best-credentialed students. As a consequence, a good student is likely to find some law school that will provide financial aid, so long as he/she is not in thrall to the rankings. It is for the individual student to determine what combination of cost, rankings, and perceived value best suits his/her circumstances.

As Mr. Berg well knows, Wayne Law does have scholarships for students interested in public interest work. Funding for our Public Interest Law Fellowships has remained constant since their inception. The only change is that the committee administering the program decided to offer a few more fellowships at a slightly reduced amount (commensurate with the compensation the market pays), consistent with the egalitarian ethos Mr. Berg seems to embrace. We are also trying to shift funding for this and other public interest programs away from general funds and toward philanthropy. That is why I will be attending the event at the Tigers game this Friday night benefiting the Mark Weiss Scholarship Fund.

We would love to have the funding for a loan repayment assistance program for students obtaining public interest work after graduation, and we have made that an objective of our comprehensive campaign. I would also like to be in a position to ignore the U.S. News rankings. But our alumni, legal employers, and other members of our community tell me that is a luxury that I do not enjoy.

Jul 19 / Robert Ackerman

Law School Economics 102

The New York Times and its reporter David Segal have struck again! Sunday’s semi-revealing epistle was titled “Law School Economics: Ka Ching,” with the subtitle, “Though Few Jobs Await Graduates, Tuition Soars and Enrollment Grows.” An illustration depicting lemming-like individuals (law students, presumably?) ascending a cash register adorned with pillars accompanied the piece on the front page of the Sunday Times Business section.

This week’s principal target was New York Law School and its dean Rick Matasar. It seems that in recent years, New York Law School’s enrollment and tuition have grown substantially (the latter to over $47,000 annually)[1], despite a declining market for legal employment, and despite Dean Matasar’s frequent urging that law schools rethink their business model.

I have heard many of Dean Matasar’s urgings first-hand, and have no doubt that his statements are heartfelt. New York Law School may not be altogether representative of the economics of legal education, as it is a free-standing institution, enjoying neither the infrastructure of a university nor the support of state funding. Nor, apparently, is the situation at New York Law as bleak as the Times would suggest. Dean Matasar has published a fact-laden response at http://www.nyls.edu/news_and_events/matasars_response_to_nytimes. I suggest that you read it and draw your own conclusions.

While we are subject to many of the same market forces at Wayne Law, we are in good position to weather the storm. Declining state support has forced us to raise tuition, but we were able to limit that increase to 4.9 percent this year. I guess we could spin that to say that it compares favorably to Wayne State University’s undergraduate tuition increase of 6.9 percent. But students pay tuition in dollars, not percentages. Wayne Law’s base tuition is about three times that of our undergraduate tuition, so the dollar amount of our increase is significant, raising our resident tuition for full-time first-year students above the $25,000 mark. That’s still the lowest law school tuition in our state, in keeping with our desire to provide access to the profession for those of limited means.

Our university has come to realize that the law school can no longer be treated as a “cash cow,” subsidizing other university operations. At one time, the reigning philosophy was that you could charge law students dearly for their education, because their future income was certain to be high enough to retire substantial indebtedness. If that was ever true, it no longer is. Only a handful of law schools place more than 20 percent of their graduates in the highest paying law firms, so it is important for us to be mindful of student debt. Notwithstanding the Times headline, we are quite conscious of the market and the need to treat our students fairly when we set tuition.

Our university has also concurred with our faculty’s judgment that we do not improve the law school by increasing JD enrollment. Admitting too many students is unfair to our students. While we cannot guaranty jobs for all our graduates (in all honesty, nobody can), we must admit only those students who are likely to successfully complete law school and pass the bar. Admitting too many students is also unfair to the public, which expects and deserves a reasonable level of competence on the part of those possessing a JD degree.

We’ve actually reduced class size in recent years (targeting an entering class of about 185 students), mindful of both student/faculty ratio and quality of the entering class. At the same time, we’ve gradually grown our faculty. This year, we’ve added Dr. Kirsten Carlson, already a distinguished expert in American Indian law, civil procedure, and constitutional law; and Professor Eric Williams, an experienced practitioner who will direct our Small Business and Non-profit Organizations Clinic. There will be a budget squeeze, but we’ll try to address this through economies like reduced administrative expenses and fewer cookies at law school events, rather than scrimping on the quality of our academic program.

In a few short days, the Times piece has drawn a great deal of commentary. Among the most provocative is the Adam Smith blog post at http://www.adamsmithesq.com/archives/2011/07/-by-this-time-everyone.html. This post suggests a major defect in the legal education market: the failure of law schools to provide detailed, reliable employment data for law school graduates. Another interesting post is that of Larry Ribstein, http://truthonthemarket.com/2011/07/17/the-nyt-misses-the-point-about-law-schools/. Ribstein suggests that regulatory failure (i.e., inadequate oversight by the ABA) has resulted in law schools inadequately preparing their students for the rigors of practice.

But as Ribstein indicates, law schools’ insulation from market forces is ending. No lapse in regulation prevents law schools from publishing detailed employment data on their websites, as Wayne Law has. (See http://law.wayne.edu/career-services/2010stats.php.) And while a number of constraints in academia, including our regulatory environment, may retard reform, modern law schools pay far more attention to skills education – ideally in a manner that emphasizes reflection, problem-solving, and ethical standards – rather than mere mastery of disembodied tasks. Professor Williams’ philosophy – he has likened aspects of clinical legal education to grand rounds in medical education – evidences our efforts to equip students with the wherewithal to become effective, thoughtful practitioners.

Wayne Law will earn no points from U.S. News for being more transparent about employment data on our website or for strengthening our clinical program. But discerning applicants will take note of law schools’ efforts, and perhaps the market will respond accordingly.

[1] The Times neglects to point out that New York Law School’s tuition is a flat rate guaranteed not to rise while a student is in law school.

May 3 / Robert Ackerman

Some facts about scholarships

Admissions Dean Ericka Jackson was recently quoted in a New York Times article addressing three-year merit scholarships at law schools. While the writer makes some good points, he neglected to include pertinent information regarding these scholarships at Wayne Law.

At Wayne Law, we offer three-year scholarships to about a third of our entering class. Because these awards are premised on predicted success in law school, we condition their renewal on placement in roughly the top third of the class. On average, about two-thirds of our scholarship recipients meet this condition. Students who lose their scholarships after the first year may regain them based on second-year performance. And we award a few second-year scholarships to students who had not initially obtained awards but performed extremely well in the first year. Additional students receive awards based on other measures of academic performance, extracurricular activities and public interest work.

Many students inquire about the likelihood of retaining their scholarships, and we are happy to answer them accurately and thoroughly. Should you or anyone you know have questions regarding merit scholarships – or any scholarships for that matter – please contact Dean Jackson at (313) 577-3937 or at emjackson@wayne.edu.

Wayne Law takes pride in providing information to our students and applicants. Shortly after the ABA Young Lawyers Division passed a resolution calling for more detailed disclosure of employment information on the part of law schools, we posted such data on our website at http://law.wayne.edu/career-services/2010stats.php. We hope other law schools will follow suit.

Apr 6 / Robert Ackerman

The music is back!

Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

– Joni Mitchell

Long live the Detroit Symphony Orchestra!

Seriously: Would it hurt to buy a season-long subscription, now that we have a season? A great city deserves a great orchestra.

Feb 21 / Robert Ackerman

Four blows

Four blows fell on Southeast Michigan during the past week. In Letterman fashion, I’ll list them in increasing order of magnitude.

Blow #4: Last Wednesday, Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers’ first baseman and best player, was arrested on a DUI charge. Mr. Cabrera’s alcohol troubles came to light near the end of the 2009 season, but last year, he seemed to have things under control, and posted his best numbers ever while finishing second in American League MVP voting. This apparent relapse is disturbing. But it is reassuring to see how Cabrera’s teammates and Tigers management have responded. “The first thing that pops into your head is not the baseball part of it; it’s Miguel the person,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “There are more important things than baseball.”[1] Let’s hope the Tigers can be compassionate without making light of what might be a serious and chronic problem, that Mr. Cabrera can re-establish control over his life, and Tiger fans can continue to see a great athlete make the best use of his talents.

Blow #3: Earlier in the week, the Ann Arbor-based Borders bookstore chain filed for reorganization, seeking the protection of the nation’s bankruptcy laws. By Friday, the chain had announced that four of the 200 stores it would close are in the Detroit metropolitan area. As a major national chain, Borders can hardly be characterized as the Little Shop Around the Corner, but for my family, it was. My wife and I chose our house in part because a Borders bookstore was, literally, around the corner (and a public library also within walking distance). This weekend we were among hordes of shoppers grabbing bargains off the shelves as our local store began its liquidation sale. “Maybe you’d stand in line for 20% (off) if the line wasn’t two hours long,” complained one shopper,[2] in a variation of Yogi Berra’s adage, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

Perhaps one ought not mourn for a corporate giant that may have played a role in the demise of more than a few independent book stores.[3] But it is always sad to see a bookstore close. Nowadays, we receive much of our information, including books (and this blog), via electronic media. Our abandonment of public places built around books is additional evidence of the depletion of social capital decried in Robert Putnam’s perceptive work, “Bowling Alone.” Reading is largely a solitary activity, but the celebration of literature need not be.

Blow #2. This weekend we learned that the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have rejected what management described as its final contract offer, thereby prolonging a six-month old strike and resulting in suspension of the Symphony’s 2010-11 season. What I am at liberty to say about this is limited, because I served at an earlier stage as a mediator in this dispute. This is hardly a distinction, as by now over half a dozen mediators, ranging from the skillful Mike Nowakowski (an FMCS mediator and adjunct professor at Wayne Law) to Senator Carl Levin to business leader Dan Gilbert have been frustrated in their efforts to bring this matter to a satisfactory resolution. These efforts reflect our mutual recognition of the importance of a great symphony to a city like Detroit. We love the Tigers and Red Wings and take pride in our industrial heritage. But we recognize that a world-class city needs world-class cultural institutions. Let’s hope that over the long term, the DSO and its musicians can resolve their differences, the banks (some of which were bailed out with public money not too long ago) will forebear on the Symphony’s debt, and the people of Detroit will give their symphony the support it deserves.

Blow #1: On Thursday, Michigan’s new Governor, Rick Snyder, announced his budget proposals. The state, hit worse than most by the recession, must cope with an estimated $1.4 billion deficit,[4] and the Governor’s proposal reflects his view of the hard choices that must be made. The proposal includes major cuts to the public sector, including a 15% cut to universities (more if we raise tuition more than 7%).

Wayne State’s President, Allan Gilmour, has responded in a forthright manner, acknowledging the state’s budget difficulties, promising to advocate for higher education (the best ticket to long-term economic growth), and recognizing the hard choices that remain ahead. Doubtless, we will have to make difficult choices and appropriate adjustments at Wayne Law. Like most public institutions facing budget crunches, we will not be able to do all of the things we would like to do, at least in the immediate future. But I remain confident that we will continue to provide high quality legal education for our students, maintain the lowest law school tuition in the state, and continue to improve our academic program. We are currently planning a comprehensive campaign to provide more support for students, faculty and academic programs and to improve our physical plant. With the help of our alumni and friends, we will emerge from these efforts better and stronger than ever.

In the midst of adversity, there is opportunity.

1] New York Times Sports Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011, p. 4.
2] Detroit Free Press, Feb. 20, 2011, p. 1.
3] Movie aficionados will recall the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan hit, “You’ve Got Mail.”
4] Compare that to an estimated federal budget deficit of $1.6 trillion, i.e., more than a thousand times that of Michigan. But Gov. Snyder has compounded the problem with some $1.5 billion in tax breaks to business.