Thursday, October 11, 2007

Spillenger reviews Kalman, Yale Law School and the Sixties

Laura Kalman, Yale Law School and the Sixties: Revolt and Reverberations, (University of North Carolina Press, 2005) is reviewed in the Law and History Review by Clyde Spillenger, UCLA. Spillenger writes:

A now-retired scholar of American colonial history is said to have contemned all scholarly work on the twentieth century as mere "journalism." Laura Kalman, whose writings have explored the institutional history of American law during that later period, has for twenty years given the lie to this dyspeptic claim. Like her three previous books, Yale Law School and the Sixties places at its center legal education in the United States, in particular the law school that now regularly rates #1 in the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings of American law schools. And, like her other books, this one confirms her standing as our finest historian of the elite institutions of American law in the twentieth century.

Scholars have frequently identified the untidy events at American universities in the period from 1965–1973 as among the most significant developments of the era. At no time before or since have students at U.S. institutions of higher education pressed so insistently for "relevance" in the university mission—for the view that the university should be, not an oasis from the larger world, but rather intimately concerned with it. Yale University's patrician president, Kingman Brewster, is widely regarded as having navigated these shoals expertly, exhibiting flexibility in the face of student demands while yielding little of the university's actual authority. At Yale Law School, however, these years witnessed greater conflict and harder feelings than at the university as a whole. While it is difficult to tell how deeply and broadly protest sentiment ran among the law student body during the years 1967–1970, it is clear that in those years a group of student activists made things very hot for the faculty and administration.

While the law school's small size and its sometimes uncomfortable intimacy helped intensify faculty-student conflict, Kalman argues that that conflict was framed by a shift in the law faculty's outlook from that of a vibrant Legal Realism in the 1920s and 1930s, to that of a rather complacent postwar liberalism in the 1960s. Dissenting students were apt to accuse the faculty of having abandoned the critical edge that had characterized the work of their Realist forebears. For their part, faculty who believed their reformist bona fides had been demonstrated by their stated opposition to the Vietnam War and by their commitment to civil rights were confounded by students' more "radical" demands for shared governance, reform of the grading system, racial justice (particularly with respect to admissions and faculty hiring), equality for women, and reform of the curriculum to make it more relevant. The ensuing tensions came to a head during the trial of Bobby Seale in New Haven and the "May Day" demonstrations at Yale during the spring of 1970.


There is, in addition, a second institutional drama recounted in this book: the infamous "purge" of junior faculty at the Yale Law School in the mid-1970s, when six assistant professors (most politically left-of-center) were denied tenure virtually en masse. (All six went on to successful careers, some of them highly distinguished, at other academic institutions.) Although there was a lag of a few years between these two sets of events, Kalman considers them to be closely connected. For purposes of her story, she defines "the 1960s" actually as the period from 1967 to the mid-1970s. And she sees "the purge" as having been influenced by some senior faculty's searing memories of the student protests and the siege mentality that had temporarily gripped the law school.

While Kalman is appropriately tentative in allocating responsibility for a "Dark Ages" of faculty-student conflict that no participant remembers fondly, she does demonstrate that many of Yale's faculty were uncreative and even panicky in their response to students' demands in 1967–70. Kalman resists the temptation retrospectively to condemn or lampoon those faculty members (such as Eugene V. Rostow and the redoubtable Alexander Bickel) who seemed least able to understand the meaning of student discontent. At the same time, she signals occasional irritation at what seems like callow and pretentious rhetoric on the part of some student radicals. A few student leaders, such as Black activist J. Otis Cochran, and a few sympathetic but relatively powerless professors make more impressive showings. But this is not a story abounding with heroes—until the book's final two chapters.

Despite the book's title, Kalman at the book's end ventures briefly into the 1980s and 1990s and finds there a savior of sorts: Guido Calabresi, Dean of Yale Law School from 1985–1994 and currently a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Calabresi's spectacular fund-raising and his genial, creative response to renewed student activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped resurrect the law school and move it to its enviable place in the legal-educational hierarchy.

Continue reading here.

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