That Which We Call a Law School

Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook when I was in college. I used it – everyone used it.

Today, like most people born after 1970, I only go to Facebook for two reasons: to ensure I don’t miss a single glorious specimen of my extended family’s boomer memes, and to post just enough pictures of my kids to stave off someone actually calling me on the phone. What can I say? I refuse to be labeled as a millennial, but I will cop to being an adult with millennial characteristics.

And the celebration of Roy Moore’s poetic stylings that an old family friend shared recently? It is exquisite, the kind of thing that really must be seen to be believed. More importantly, it is the kind of thing that simply cannot be missed.

If “our children wander aimlessly / poisoned by cocaine” isn’t up your aesthetic alley for some reason, Facebook will find something they think you might like in the oldest way possible: by letting someone pay for the right to put that thing in front of you. Today’s installment in my lovingly, artisanally curated feed? A sponsored post by a group of former students at Penn’s law school seeking signatures to a petition to dismiss the dean of the school.


This sort of thing having become de rigueur, I hope I can be forgiven for imagining that Dean Theodore Ruger must have done something truly horrifying and cancellable, like expressing admiration for Thomas Jefferson or fundamental freedoms or capitalism or something. As it happens, no! What Dean Ruger did was accept a $125 million gift from the W.P. Carey Foundation in exchange for renaming the school to the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.

I suppose you can quibble about the process of doing something like that – or about the amount. I’m not sure what the going rate for a building at an elite university is, much less a program or the name of the school itself. Phil Knight sent $400 million to Stanford and got a fellowship program named after him. At Harvard that was roughly the price for John Paulson getting his name slapped on the engineering school. Prolific political advertiser and avowed Big Gulp hater Mike Bloomberg gave three times as much to Johns Hopkins, but it was apparently to expand need-blind admissions and eliminate debt as a means for providing financial aid rather than to slap his name on a school. Although – to be fair – he already had his name on one there.

All those quibbles aside, $125 million doesn’t seem out of whack with the going market rate for getting your name attached to a big name, elite professional school. So what was the nature of the complaint?

Well, you can read it for yourself here. Following the proper forms for Angry Letters, the group is upset ‘that current and former students weren’t consulted’ about the name change. As the university’s student-run newspaper reported it:

Of course, being ‘angry that you weren’t consulted’ is just the way that someone trying to be polite or formal says that they hated a decision and that they want to attach some moral judgment to it instead of just expressing their disagreement. The old Monty Python sketch in which a guy looking for an argument accidentally wanders into the room for abuse doesn’t work any more. When cooperative games are transformed into competition games, they’re the same room.

Indeed, the disgruntled group lays out the real problem they had in the petition, too. Why did the 3,121 current and former students who signed the petition (as of January 16, 2020) hate the decision? Because they felt it adversely impacted the brand awareness and reputational value of their degree, especially among employers.

And guess what? The alumni are absolutely right.

The Carey School of Law is not as good of a brand as Penn Law. I mean, not everyone can have a name as delicious-sounding as Salisbury State, but the name doesn’t jump off the resume. I mean, it’s a subjective sort of thing, but to my ear it sounds corporate and generic, and like the various Annenberg Schools scattered about, has begun to crop up as a school name at more than one university – even if the Carey namesake isn’t always the same person.

So I don’t blame the petitioners. I mean, it’s bad metagame, sure. It’s also an especially crappy way to treat a profoundly generous donor, and the subsequent petition to oust the dean is extremely stupid in the most insufferable way, but in the world of mutually pursued enlightened self-interest, the worst I suppose you can say about the petitioning current and former students is that they are technically accurate jerks. They paid for their school, and don’t have a duty to anything other than their own livelihoods. More power to ’em, I guess.

But here’s the thing: The university caved. Following community complaints, they changed the short name used on all materials back to Penn Law – at least for now.

The institution which purports – not least as part of its and other universities’ arguments in favor of non-profit treatment – to be an institution which exists for the primary purpose of research and education, elected to put this and future education and equality-enhancing philanthropy at risk for the purpose of protecting the brand value of the degree they confer among employers and the general public. OK, and maybe to get the students to shut up. But it is absolutely a case study for every indictment we published last year about the American university system as a guild system operating through the socially irresistible power of the meme of Yay, College!

In short, elite American universities and their associated professional schools are no longer selling an education. They are – like medieval guilds – institutions who operate in the interest of the members of the guild. Their priority is to protect and increase the value, prestige and perceived selectiveness of the license they confer – and to sell that increasingly scarce commodity at rapidly accelerating market rates that have been further bolstered by well-meaning government policy, like infinite debt for everyone. That means that if it comes to choosing between something that will actual help universities teach current students on the one hand, and maintaining the perceived credential value among graduates on the other, we know their preference, because they have showed it to us. Again.

Should we care? After all, these are nominally private institutions.

We should.

After all, we are collectively funding the investments and operations of these colleges today, both directly and indirectly. What’s more, if the student loan ‘crisis’, as media reportage has settled on calling it, is resolved through a full or partial forgiveness program with no consequences for the tuition-inflating credentialing guild, we will have effectively facilitated and cemented a generational transfer of wealth from nearly every American to elite private universities. (We’re already there on one side of the ledger, of course, we just haven’t fully socialized the losses yet).

One way or another, all this is exactly where the zeitgeist of class-based, identity-based conflict is taking us – and God, are the battlegrounds in the war between the merely rich and the super-rich ever weird and unsettling places. They’re the kind of places where extremely rich graduates of a professional program at an elite American university, in one breath, risk the loss of programs that would help underserved communities attend the school in order to protect the name value of the alumni’s credential, while in the next breath decrying the unseemliness of selling naming rights to a really rich person.

Get used to this kind of unsettling battle of competing memes between identity-driven groups, folks. This is the Long Now, where building a university system that serves America and Americans long-term interests is secondary to maximizing the present perceptions of the people with a real stake in it: the people who’ve already earned membership in the guild, whether through admission or philanthropy.

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  1. I think an addendum to their resume would suffice. (Ie- "Cary School Of Law (Formally Penn Law)


  2. One of the things which isn’t discussed when looking at why Universities are so expensive is the effect of the end of the cold war and the focus away from nuclear weapons. There isn’t much written about it, because much of it is classified, but this article presents part of the story.

    The point is, post WWII and during the cold war, the government needed to fund research into weapons systems. Universities were major beneficiaries of this, but for many reasons, the universities didn’t disclose the source of their funding, nor did they disclose to many of the students working on that research. This research gave universities a great deal of funding that they had freedom to use. However, with the cold war ending, that funding spigot ended. So, funding from other sources had to be found.

    The world is a complicated place and many people benefited in ways they never imagined. You are helping me wake up to some of these facts. Thanks.

  3. “But here’s the thing: The university caved. Following community complaints, they changed the short name used on all materials back to Penn Law – at least for now.”

    So, does the University have to give the $125 million back?

  4. Avatar for Schase Schase says:

    Government funding of this academic madness is a case of negative network effects. Ask any ethics professor in the law school and she will tell you this: what’s moral is what’s legal. Reply by asking what happens when what’s legal is for sale? A similar dynamic is at work with housing, food and healthcare.

  5. “In short, elite American universities and their associated professional schools are no longer selling an education. They are – like medieval guilds – institutions who operate in the interest of the members of the guild. Their priority is to protect and increase the value, prestige and perceived selectiveness of the license they confer – and to sell that increasingly scarce commodity at rapidly accelerating market rates…”

    Presented without comment - a “promoted” Tweet in my Twitter feed today:

    Harvard Business Analytics Program
    This rigorous cross-disciplinary online program prepares leaders with the analytics, leadership, and strategy skills to drive better business outcomes. Complete in as few as 9 months.

    (Could not find a way to import a pic, but wanted to as the below is much more “impressive” emblazoned in Harvard Red as it was in the Tweet)

    Harvard Business Analytics Program: Complete an Analytics Certificate in Nine Months

    (end Tweet)

    Okay, I lied, one comment: notice how they got “leaders/leadership” in there twice.

  6. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I think it was a (temporary) resolution that had to be negotiated with the donor.

  7. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    There’s a lot to this, I think.

    That is part of the problem with establishing big institutions as quasi-government program instead of the businesses that they are - no one actually thinks about shedding assets or slowing growth when a business line becomes less profitable, because they don’t have to. The idea that they didn’t HAVE to maintain and train such a large group of researchers and PhDs just never occurred to most schools.

  8. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks for sending this, Mark! I’ll bring this up to Ben, who has an extremely relevant story worth sharing on our next ET Live event.

  9. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Couldn’t get the link to work, but yes, all sorts of features of our Fiat World, the Long Now and the transition toward competition games we write about are equilibrial states caused by what you could call negative externalities.

  10. A guild…

    Anyone learning the full details of my side “hobby” over the past five years, would likely understand my obsession with researching the legal profession. Financial hucksters motives are so easy to understand and most of us can readily decipher the means with true or even mostly true financial records. When a lawyer falsifies documents, misleads in court, conspires with a judge, the motives and the full details just aren’t so clear.

    Until the loan “losses are socialized,” a career in litigation can become more akin to indentured servitude including unfair negotiating. Law students tend not be experts in financial projecting. Attending a respected law school will likely start you with at least $100k in debt at graduation. And you are expected to take clerk jobs at lower pay. When a firm offers you $200,000, you might be glad to accept the long hours and moral degradation.

    But again, injustice.

    So you become a public defender at < $50,000 a year. Many criminal court judges are former prosecutors, and carry over their Tough on Crime, Yay! So what’s your job as a public defender? What if you don’t play along with the judge? Judicial sanctions (formal or informal). Imagine you respond with a formal complaint against the judge–professional suicide and you still have loans.

    What high comp, white collar job is available for disbarred attorneys that will cover their loans?

    A true debtor’s prison.

    So yeah, these ‘professionals’ are in a key position of wealth inequality compromise daily, as Yay, Capitalism! Sure accountants and bankers keep track of the flow of funds. But we know the attorneys set up offshore entities.

    Maybe Penn Law grads realize the selling Yay, Justice! and Yay, Rule of Law! is harder when you graduate from “Mr. Capitalist Law School.”

  11. I was at the school when they were announcing the roll out of these online programs and renaming them from HBX to HBS online. The reaction of my fellow classmates was similar albeit not as dramatic as that of Penn Law. The main complaint was about the brand equity and how someone’s 200k HBS MBA was now carrying the same name as the online program where they pretty much admit everyone and costs only a fraction. Rusty couldn’t be more on point about the general sentiment of graduates at these “elite” institutions.

  12. Good story. I could not agree more. Heck, I went to a State University and am suspicious of the true educational value of an Ivy/elite degree, but it definitely caught my attention when I saw an Ivy/elite name on a resume. I have to admit, I assumed this person had - at least at one point in his/her life - something good going on. They are good brands, as Rusty avers.

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