Friday, July 13, 2007

The Wisconsin State Representative who wanted to kill the law school, and why it's more than just a silly news story

This summer the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly -- the former controlled by Democrats, the latter by Republicans -- are trying to come to a compromise two-year budget for our state. In recent years, the University of Wisconsin has suffered under state budgets. This season, the Senate seems ready to invest in the university while the Assembly would like to defund it further. At stake is a familiar story of two competing conceptions of the university: for progressives, it is a site of serious knowledge production, a form of cost-effective collective corporate training, and a source of economic innovation to the local, state, and national economy; but to conservatives, it represents a site of public subsidy that should be privatized (economic conservatives) and a site of dangerous indoctrination that should be censored (social conservatives).

Today in the Capital Times comes a revelation that would bring some humor to the entire exercise if it wasn't true: one of the conservative Assembly representatives actually managed to insert language into the official Assembly version of the budget which zeroed out funding of the UW-Madison law school.

A lawmaker who persuaded the Assembly to eliminate all state funding for the University of Wisconsin Law School says his reasoning is simple: There are too many lawyers in Wisconsin.

"We don't need more ambulance chasers. We don't need frivolous lawsuits. And we don't need attorneys making people's lives miserable when they go to family court for divorces," said Rep. Frank Lasee, R-Green Bay. "And I think that having too many attorneys leads to all those bad results."


"When we have an overabundance of attorneys already, there's no point in subsidizing the education of more attorneys," Lasee said.

Let me first go on record as saying that I disagree with Lasee's proposal, that I think his proposal represents the worst sort of anti-intellectual "legislation by personal prejudice," and that I am appalled that the Assembly leadership let such language slip into their budget proposal unchallenged.

But my bigger problem with this incident is the way it is being treated in the press as some sort of ridiculous and ironic individual aberration ("this legislator wants to get rid of lawyers, ha ha; he must have a personal axe to grind against the law school, what a joke"). Instead I think it represents a real and growing change in the way that the difficult labor of knowledge production is understood and valued in society.

Neither Lassee nor his critics seem to consider the UW-Madison law school a site of knowledge production. Instead, they see it as a site of lawyer production; a site where individual entrepreneurs are trained, credentialed, and then certified for (take your pick) predatory release on the consumer public, or distinguished public service to the citizenry. But lost in all this debate over whether the state should subsidize the increase in numbers of any given occupation, trade, or profession, is the thought that any department of the university does more than job training.

Faculty, staff, and students all over our university are involved in research and exploration, teaching and public service, producing and translating and critically questioning knowledge itself. This function is essential not only to a healthy economy (whether under a conservative or a progressive definition of economic health), but to a healthy citizenry and a healthy culture. To me the irony is that the very institution through which the processes and products of our legal system come under critical, historical, and cultural scrutiny -- the law school -- is itself seen narrowly by supporters and critics alike as a diploma mill, not to mention subject to the personal legislative whim of one zealot or another.

This is a pattern that we've seen -- and continue to see -- again and again, from the calls to privatize public television to the demands that libraries be run "more like businesses." Those of us involved in knowledge production, organization, dissemination, and critique have to challenge these narrow constructions, these stereotypes, these misunderstandings -- and not dismiss them as jokes for the late night talk shows.

1 comment:

PheistyBlog said...

The reason why attorneys flock to Wisconsin is because we have a great 'lawsuit climate'. It isn't the fault of the attorneys... They are simply going where they money is.

I have a disdain for injury attorneys that is completely justified, because I see firsthand what these parasites suck out of businesses and the people they represent. However, I would say that Rep. Lasee should take it one step further and get some true tort reform in Wisconsin. The laws are the reasons for the obscene amount of attorneys we have here, and I can hardly blame them for trying to make a living.

Granted, I don't know how they sleep at night, but that's another subject.