The philosophy behind the Allston move

BY OWEN ALTERMAN

To some here at HLS, the law school’s potential move to Allston is about tradition – cutting our ties with our venerable campus. To others, it’s about atmosphere – trading Harvard Square for an uncertain Allston future. To still others, the bottom line is about practicalities – getting better housing, a nicer gym, a modern student center.

But I think there’s something more at stake. It becomes clear through interviews with professors on the faculty committee charged with looking into the move. And it remains true even after Tuesday afternoon’s sparsely-attended forum, where the focus was very much on the practical plans.

Because in the end, our views on Allston will largely – though not completely – be decided by the answer to one question.

What is a law school all about?

Should law be seen as an academic discipline, like history or economics or chemistry? Or is a law school a place for professional training, to be grouped with Harvard Business School, the Kennedy School and the rest?

Consider the change in neighborhoods between the school’s present Cambridge home and the potential future site in Allston. Walking out our doors now, we’re minutes from the Arts and Sciences heartland – Widener Library, the Science Center, the college, the academic departments ranging from English to physics.

In Allston, things would feel different. Across the river, it looks like President Larry Summers would put into place the plan he outlined for the Boston Globe in February and, it seems, to the faculty committee all along: A professional school campus, with HLS, the Kennedy School, the Business School and the rest sitting next to (or near) each other, with integrated dorms and common spaces where students from the different schools could mingle.

That’s a big contrast, and it hasn’t escaped the faculty committee. But in their presentations and in their work, committee members seem to view the difference chiefly in terms of its practical, functional impact: How many students cross-register at the K-School? How many faculty have connections with HBS? How many students are Teaching Fellows at the College?

Some observers say that’s the right approach – or that, in any case, what students really ought to think about is the day-to-day practical impact. However fascinating its symbolic meaning, Allston would really be a brick-and-mortar move, and there are too many other issues for students to think about.

The metaphysical academic/professional thing just might not be as key as questions like these: The proposed Allston sites and Harvard Yard are far apart, so who’s gonna have the long walk? For that matter, would we trade for newer facilities in Allston but lose Harvard Square? Or would future HLS generations want to have student housing far from campus? That’s a good bet if HLS stays put, as the school is fast running out of space.

So the practicalities are important. But we shouldn’t ignore the symbolism, either. Our neighborhood says a lot about who we are. The buildings around us, the people we pass on our way to shop and dine, have an effect that can’t be tabulated and calculated. When it’s eventually made, the Allston decision will partly be an expression of where a law school belongs, an expression made by the leadership of Harvard University.

And make no mistake, the University will be making this decision – meaning President Summers and the leaders of the Harvard Corporation. No one at the Law School – not the students, not the faculty, not the dean – has a vote. The faculty committee isn’t even making recommendations.

Although we can’t vote or recommend, we can reflect. And for us twentysomethings, this is a fine excuse to think one more time about that existential “Why are we at law school?” question. Are the three years here a time for academic inquiry, in the spirit of the neighborhood around Harvard Yard? Or is this more a time for professional grounding, in the spirit of Summers’ Allston brainstorm?

Our answers won’t make much difference to the bottom line. But they could help us make up our minds about Allston. And they can surely help us to understand our law school experience in its fullest sense.

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