The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

The New York Times Uncovered The Worst-Kept Secret In Academia

Summer study-abroad programs are cushy vacations for students and boondoggles to attract elite faculty.


As a general matter, law professors do not have to teach during the summer. Indeed, we barely teach during the academic year, as compared to virtually all other academic disciplines. The standard load is two lectures classes, plus a small seminar. The only way universities can attract elite faculty to teach in the summer is to situate the classes in exotic locations. Professors, and their families, have most-expenses-paid vacations to foreign cities. Sure, there are a few hours of teaching in the morning. But the rest of the time is free. And those same classes could easily be taught at the home institution. But again, professors would never sacrifice their summer breaks to teach domestically. What about students? Most law schools offer summer classes on this side of the pond. (I took CrimPro and a privacy law seminar during my 1L summer.) But who wants to toil in the heat? It's far more fun to study some esoteric topic in Europe.

Everyone knows these facts. It is not a secret. Indeed, over my career, I've challenged law professors who teach abroad. They insist that these programs are rigorous. So are classes in the United States. They insist that students can build camaraderie. They can do that here as well. They insist that students can be exposed to faculty who do not teach at our institution. Well, now Zoom can do that quite well. Plus, it pains me that students take on more debt to pay for cushy vacations, rather than trying to earn an actual salary over the summer. If I am reviewing a resume, and I see a summer-abroad program, I immediately think the person made a poor decision of how to spend the 2L summer.

I'm sure I'm an outlier. Plenty of professors who benefit from these programs love them. Same for administrators who tag along on the trips! Plus all students love vacations with academic credit. Rant over.

This background brings me to the latest breathless reporting in the New York Times. Now, the newspaper of record has focused on my alma mater, the Scalia Law School. The article is long. Really long. But the upshot is that George Mason has placed a priority on recruiting Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh to teach at summer study programs. Shocker! A DC law school works hard to connect its students with the leaders of the profession. My own law school has organized similar programs in the past with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Ginsburg. (My students described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.) So have countless other law schools. The only reason this story exists is because GMU is subject to FOIA. I'd love to look through the efforts at Harvard, Yale, and other elite private schools to recruit the Justices. There is also an issue lurking under the surface. Elite institutions can no longer invite conservative Justices. So Mason, as well as Notre Dame have filled that gap.

Moreover, I am scratching my head at the apparent conspiracy between GMU study-abroad program and GMU clinics that file amicus briefs. Does anyone really think that Justice Gorsuch is more likely to read an amicus brief from a GMU clinic because he taught several GMU students in a clinic? The reason why conservative justices read amicus briefs by conservative scholars is because they find those ideas persuasive. And Mason punches far above its weight class with regard to prominent conservative scholars. Does anyone think elite Supreme Court clinics at Harvard or Stanford are tainted because of the close connections those institutions have with the Justices? Indeed, those clinics actually argue cases, and do not just file amicus briefs destined for the circular file.

D.C. is–for lack of better words–an incestuous swamp. Everyone "knows" everyone else. And there is a nonstop effort by people with less power to try to gain access to people with more power. When you meet someone in D.C., the first question you are asked is "What do you do?" They are not curious about what you do. They want to know if you can provide them with more influence. The Times fails to place any of these allegations in context. Everything is about the one law school that proudly extolls its conservative connections. This sort of journalistic paint-by-numbers fails to ever substantiate their claims. It's only enough to raise some concerns, and hope uninformed readers fill in the gaps on their own.

Nothing to see here. Wait till the next empty shoe drops.