The Power of Institutional Focus

Ilya Somin wonders why some top universities don't have law schools:

It recently occurred to me that there are several big-name
universities that don't have law schools, even though a law school
established at any of those institutions would probably do well.
Princeton arguably heads this list, along with Brown, Johns Hopkins,
Rice, and Tufts. Brandeis University also doesn't have a law school
(ironically, for a prominent university named after a Supreme Court

Why these universities haven't established law schools is a bit of a
mystery (at least to me). Law schools tend to bring in net revenue for
the university. This is even more likely to be true at a big-name
institution that can quickly attract good faculty and students. If
Princeton were to establish a law school tommorrow, appoint a credible
dean, and provide adequate initial financial backing, they could very
quickly turn it into a highly successful (and profitable) enterprise.
Many good students would come just because of the Princeton name, and
most outstanding scholars who are not already at top 20 or top 30
institutions might well be willing to move to Princeton if asked.

Princeton, by the way, does not have a law school or business school or medical school.  It really tries to hold itself up as primarily and undergraduate institution, and works hard to be the premier undergraduate school in the country.  It has graduate schools only in disciplines for which there is an undergraduate degree (e.g. math, economics, chemistry, history).  I have always suspected that they maintain these graduate programs mainly because they have to to attract top academic talent to be available for their undergraduates.  Unlike any other university with which I am familiar, and certainly unlike Harvard where I also attended, graduate students at Princeton feel themselves to be second class citizens.

Somin acknowledges this a bit when he says:

Various commenters suggest that these universities choose not to
have a law school because of their desire to focus on undergraduate
education. That may indeed be the right explanation, though several of
these institutions (including Johns Hopkins, Tufts, and Rice) have
other professional schools on campus. But it doesn't strike me as a
very compelling reason not to establish a law school. If the law school
were to drain resources away form undergrad education, there might
indeed be a conflict between the two. In fact, however, a law school is
likely to bring in net revenue that could be used to improve
undergraduate education. Moreover, some law school professors
(especially at elite schools) teach courses that undergraduates might
be interested in taking, as sometimes happened at Yale, when I was a
law student there.

Even if a law school adds resources to undergrad education instead
of draining them, it's possible that its presence could detract from
undergraduate education in some other, more subtle way. But it's hard
for me to see how. If Yale Law School were closed down tomorrow, would
undergraduate education at Yale improve? Are undergraduates at Yale
currently worse off than at Princeton in some way traceable to the fact
that Yale has a law school and Princeton doesn't? Possibly. But I
remain skeptical.

I would argue that there is an important difference that you can't just get at through incremental analysis.  That is, that the management and faculty of Princeton have a culture and focus on undergraduates that universities like Harvard do not have.  Somin is right that grad schools bring in lots of money -- and so the sum of a med school and a law school and a business school and all that tuition and grant and consulting money (not to mention resultant faculty egos) is hugely distracting for an institution.  Particularly in the case of Princeton where it does not really need incremental money anyway.  Take my word for it, having attended both Harvard and Princeton, there are enormous differences in their institutional foci which have real impacts, both substantial and subtle, on undergraduate life. 

I would love to do a poll.  Ask the faculty of both Harvard and Princeton, "Which would you give up first, your university's graduate program or undergraduate program,"  I bet I know what the answer would be.

But what do I know - we Princeton grads are all nuts, anyway.


  1. NASCAR Wife:

    Do we really need more law schools in this country? We alredy graduate 40,000+ lawyers a year. We would probably do a lot better as a country if we had fewer lawyers and more engineers and scientists. Plus lawyers are generally leeches on society. They do not generate wealth, they use the law to move it from productive entities to themselves and other unproductive entities.

  2. Dan:

    The same could be said for college football. I work for George Washington Univ and used to work for George Mason Univ, neither of which have a varsity football program. Why not? College football is a huge cash cow, what with TV deals, bowl games, tickets, fan wear, stadium rentals for Rolling Stones concerts, and hot dog sales. Both universities made a considered decision to not have a football program so they could focus more on academics and research (and basketball teams) instead. Does this country really need more football players and lawyers? Just because you can make something doesn't mean you should.

  3. Don Lloyd:

    The question is just what significant improvement to undergraduate education is being hampered by a lack of money. It seems likely that almost all useful ideas are already being pursued, and that it is new ideas that are in scarce supply, not the funding to pursue them.

    Regards, Don

  4. dearieme:

    A Law School would lower the tone so.

  5. trumwill:

    The same could be said for college football. I work for George Washington Univ and used to work for George Mason Univ, neither of which have a varsity football program. Why not? College football is a huge cash cow, what with TV deals, bowl games, tickets, fan wear, stadium rentals for Rolling Stones concerts, and hot dog sales.

    Most football programs lose money. The reason that most universities do it is for prestige rather than money. If GMU or GWU could get into the Big East or another BCS conference they might be able to make money, but otherwise they'd come out in the red. Which is not to say that it would necessarily be a bad idea to do it anyway. I probably wouldn't have gone to the school I went to if they didn't field a football team and GMU in particular can attest to what an athletics program can bring in as far as applicants because of their success in basketball.

  6. stan:

    I'm a Davidson College grad. Focus is everything. Davidson's focus is all about undergraduate liberal arts education in a commumity governed by an honor code. Nothing else. For an outsider's perspective read this -- by a professor at Az St journalism school. Read it all, but this gives a flavor:

    I remain enthralled by the impact the honor code had on the campus, students and faculty. The pledge to live by the code radically changes the culture. I saw countless examples of how the honor code positively affected the campus. As I wrote in that 2003 column: “Young people were proud of doing the right thing. Students worried about whether the mildest form of consultation was approved conduct. Their conscience was honed to a fine edge. It was exciting for a stranger to see how much the honor code shaped student behavior. To my visiting eye, integrity practically oozed out of the place. “

    As The Wildcats ran their disciplined offensive sets with complicated screens, and when they bottled up Wisconsin and Kansas with their well-schooled defense, I saluted Davidson’s talented coach Bob McKillop. I also knew the culture of Davidson College contributed to the team’s success in a very big way. McKillop does things the right way, and so does Davidson the school.

    It's all about the focus.

  7. Mark:

    I have long been a proponent of even more focus that what is described here. Why does every major college institution offer such a wide array of degree choices? That is just plain ridiculous and not cost efficient. I understand that in some ways colleges and universities "specialize" in certain subjects.

    Why does the University of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud St., and WInona St (to use college and universities in my local and just to name a few) all offer the exact same types of degrees (rhetorical)?

    The fact is that our post-secondary education system has become a bureacratic system of turf protection and funding wars. THe concern for the taxpayer that supports these schools, parents that pay tuition, and students that get educations at the institutions has seemingly evaporated.

    Further, the argument that the free market and competition does not hold true because almost every one of these institutions are supported by government money in one form or the other, i.e. direct support, tuition support, bonding support, etc....The college market simply cannot support an infinite number of choices because it is just too costly.

    So, I believe a better system would involve some "planning", to sound like a communist. For example, in the above list of state supported schools, perhaps the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud St. University would both have economic degrees, with the Univ of Minnesota (the biggest campus in the state and amongst the largest in the nation) and Winona St. would offer a political science degree. You can still choose to get your political science degree at a large university like the U of Mn, or a smaller state university like Winona St. You just cannot get every choice offered to you.

    BY eliminating degree programs the schools can reduce the costly level of overhead that is associated with such programs, i.e tenured professors, departmental administrative staff, and frankly, an overly emphasized research arm.

  8. Kent Gatewood:

    Stan how does an honor code deal with group projects and study groups?