Lawyers and Legalese

The university where my wife the professor teaches has just completed a search for a new president, necessary because his predecessor was hired by a much larger university for twice the salary he was paid here in Utah.  I’ve never met the new president, but I’m already worried. Why?  Because he was the president of a Utah junior college, and he’s a lawyer.

The junior college business concerns my wife especially, because, over twenty years, virtually every junior college transfer coming into the Music Department from anywhere has been below average, despite grades and test scores that would indicate otherwise, including all those from the institution that the new president headed.  Every single one has required remedial work or extensive individual coaching, if not more.  So have some transfers from other four year institutions, but certainly not 100% of them.  What makes this more telling is that S.U.U. is not an Ivy League college, nor even a research university, although it does have a very good music program.  While there may be, and doubtless are, junior colleges with high academic standards, I’m sorry, for the most part junior colleges don’t provide academic rigor.  So that’s one reason for concern.

The second one is the lawyer business.  As several commenters have noted, almost every institution of any size in the United States is already inundated in legalese.  Colleges and universities require more and more paper.  Course syllabi at S.U.U. – and probably everywhere – have more than quintupled in length over the past two decades as the legal types have turned what used to be a simple course guides and assignment sheets into massive legal documents, almost contracts.  Every year professors are briefed on all the things they cannot do, some because of federal law, and some because of the fear administrators have of litigation.  Unhappily, it’s a fear justified by the explosion of litigation in the United States. Given that my father was an attorney, as is a daughter and a son-in-law, and several cousins, I’m not unduly prejudiced against lawyers, but lawyers need to be reined in, especially in institutional settings.

And when existing university administrators are already coming up with more paperwork requirements for professors, requirements that do nothing to improve teaching, but only provide meaningless statistics to satisfy some vague idea of accountability, the last thing a university needs is more legalese… or a president more interested in legally covering the university’s collective rear end than in improving teaching and all that entails.

That’s why we’re worried… and hope we’ll be proved wrong.  But I’m not about to bet anything on that.

3 thoughts on “Lawyers and Legalese”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Not all JC’s are created equal.

    Not all lawyers are all bad (imagine me, an MD, saying that).

    If the lawyer is worth his/her salt, they should be able to winnow through the paperwork to see what is and what is not actually necessary. That was some of the best money I ever spent with a lawyer when I was in private practice: cutting through the crappy red tape/administrivia.

    The other good thing about having a lawyer is that when it comes down to bargaining, contracts, and the like, they can’t reasonably say ‘I didn’t understand what I was signing’ without looking stupid/incompetent.

  2. AndrewV says:

    I totally agree with you on this one, Mr. Modesitt. Give professors and teachers the time they need to teach. Burying them in excessive amounts of legal paperwork does not lead to well educated students.

  3. Ralph Rea says:

    AS a former educator then administrator at a proprietary school with a JD (I often refer to myself as a “recovered lawyer” I 100% agree with Mr. Modesitt. Admittedly, teaching and being Chair of a Criminal Justice and Paralegal program, the JD (and experience in criminal law) was on target, but once I became the Dean, the amount of bureaucratic folderol was appalling. Appalling to the point that it interfered with the education part of things egregiously. Having a JD was a lot of help in a situation but I wish that it hadn’t been. Having previously been a professional bureaucrat on the state level was another skill set that was also “over-useful.”

    What Mr. Modesitt is describing was instrumental in my decision to leave that company and definitely makes me leery of looking into any administrative position at any other sort of university. It seems that the role of a “good” administrator is all too often protecting the educators (you know, the reason why we’re all there)from what you can.

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