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Issue No. 38 (October 2002) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Professional schools, not radical groups,
are our social change incubators now

The universities were no place to be, 30 years ago, if you wanted to devote your life to social change. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to so many of us then.

The professors were (perceived to be) mostly conservative. The courses were (perceived to be) hidebound. And only sellouts went on to professional school. We wanted to SMASH credentialism, not earn credentials ourselves.

Like many activist students, I kept dropping out, dropping in, dropping out again. “If you graduate in less than six years, you won’t learn a thing!” a grizzled Berkeley dropout told me (a naive University of Illinois dropout) at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s crash pad in Holly Springs, Miss., in the spring of 1965.

And I believed him. It took me eight years and four universities to finally get my B.A. Afterwards I devoted my life to carrying picket signs, passing out leaflets, writing for an underground newspaper -- as I saw it, making “the Revolution.”

Into the mainstream

Some activists today are like I was in the 1970s.  They’ve concluded that mainstream institutions are so debilitating or corrupt that we’re better off avoiding them as much as possible.

At the protests outside the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia (RAM #12), I met brilliant 18-, 25- and 30-year-olds who worked part-time loading trucks, repairing computers, clerking at bookstores -- all in order to devote the remainder of their days to making “the Revolution” (or “the Transformation,” if their politics are more New Age).

Although it’s not apparent from the media, most activists today are NOT like I was in the 1970s or like the Philadelphia protesters are today.

The vast majority of today’s social change agents are willing -- even eager -- to work through mainstream institutions. To that end, some of the most ambitious and dedicated of them have been pouring into the professional schools -- including our great medical, business, and law schools.

In my late 40s, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend professional school -- New York University School of Law, Class of 1995 -- and couldn’t get over all the new-style activists there. Say a quick “Hello!” to six of them:

-- Susan Mattisinko worked for a city bureaucracy, then decided she needed to acquire the “powerful tool” of law if she wanted to do something significant to help the elderly and homeless;

-- William James was a young veterinarian when he decided to go to law school -- in large part so he could help craft our biotechnology future for the better;

-- Kathleen Minniti was working in the fashion industry, then decided she wanted “something more.” So she went to law school to be able to open her own law office and “help people find creative solutions to their problems”;

-- Anthony Foxx was a founder of the collegiate group SERCH (Students for the Establishment of Racial and Cultural Harmony). The experience convinced him to become a civil rights lawyer;

-- Kathy Carver was a nurse, then decided she wanted to become more pro-active in the health sector -- so she went to law school. “There’s so much to humanize in the practice of medicine,” she said;

-- John Farina taught comparative religion and saw how often religion and law intersect. So he went to law school to become a First Amendment specialist and help society work out a better balance between faith and privacy.


Aren’t these new-style activists fooling themselves? Aren’t they really selling out?

Listen up, folks: Those questions come from a different era. It’s hard “selling out” in professional school today. The whole tenor of professional school today is away from selfishness and toward community service and social change.

Although Philly-style activists haven’t noticed, conservatives certainly have. “[S]tudents emerge from business schools [today] with odd notions about everything from business ethics to the role of business in society,” complains Arizona State business prof Marianne Jennings (in Irving Kristol's neoconservative journal The Public Interest, Fall 1999). “They are deeply offended by the levels of executive pay, deplore stock options, and believe that a company’s gay-rights position is a litmus test for its morality!”

Sally Satel does much the same number on medical schools in her book PC, M.D. (2001): “[A] worrisome fraction of . . . instructors are quite partisan about alternative medicine. . . .” And who can forget Robert Bork’s achingly personal attack on the “rigid ‘political correctness’” of his own law school in Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996)?

There IS a strain of left-wing political correctness in professional schools now -- I definitely encountered it at NYU Law -- but at worst it’s a nuisance. The more significant story is not being told by either left or right:

If you want to be a social change agent, professional school is where the action is in our time.

Compassionate M.D.s

Three decades ago, our most visionary healers and healers-to-be wouldn’t have touched medical school with a 10-foot pole. The bravest ones did what my friend Dana Ullman did, and got themselves arrested for practicing alternative medicine without a license.

Now at least 75 of our 125 medical schools offer courses on acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, therapeutic massage, homeopathy. And the Association of American Medical Colleges, an umbrella group representing all 125 medical schools (plus 400 teaching hospitals and 90 medical societies), recently formed a task force to promote more courses on “nontraditional health care” in the schools.

According to Harvard Medical School prof David Eisenberg, the current crop of courses gives only “a glimpse of what the medicine of the next century will include.” He sees a day when mastery of acupuncture or herbal medicine will be as basic to a good medical education as mastery of biochemistry.

The medical schools have begun to open up in other ways too. Although they’re hardly lacking in applicants, they’re now accepting about three times as many “older” (i.e., over age 28) applicants as they did in the 1970s. “The maturity and understanding [of older students] helps ground younger students,” says the director of admissions at Michigan State’s medical school.

And they bring a sense of life’s tragedy, says Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles -- and that, he adds, can produce a more empathic M.D.

Producing empathic doctors is a special goal of many medical schools today. To that end, Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, sends its medical students into the community in their first year. Wright State, in Detroit, send its med students out in their first week.

At the South Carolina College of Medicine, students are given seminars on faith, forgiveness, guilt and shame, prayer, tragedy, and spirituality -- all to help them communicate with patients who might be disabled, mentally ill, or dying.

But UCLA may have found the best way to develop medical students’ empathy. It admits them to the hospital overnight -- as patients with fictitious ailments -- then has them recount their experiences afterwards.

Holistic M.B.A.s

What business school students are studying is changing.

In 1990, only a couple of B-schools offered classes on the environment. Now over 100 do so.

The number of graduate programs in nonprofit management has jumped from 17 in 1990 to roughly three times that number today (including programs at such trend-setting B-schools as Harvard, Stanford and Penn).

Many B-school students are encouraged (or required) to do community service work now. “The barriers between the profit and nonprofit worlds are starting to come down, and we’re trying to be on the leading edge of that,” says University of Michigan’s B-school dean -- whose school now begins each fall with a two-day “global citizenship” workshop that makes students do hands-on work in the community.

Courses on health care are booming. Technology management is the fastest-growing concentration at many schools. And entrepreneurship has exploded -- from a grand total of 16 courses in 1970 to over 400 today. “The best and the brightest, who used to be attracted to consulting and investment banking, are now saying, ‘I want to be my own boss,’” says Harvard Business School prof William Sahlman.

The way business students learn is changing. More and more, they’re being shunted out of the classroom and into real business settings. Students at Babson College, in Boston, are being paired with “mentors” in area start-ups; students at Syracuse University are helping the Air Force spin off commercial ventures. . . .

Perhaps most promising of all, the traditional cookie-cutter concentrations of finance, accounting, marketing, etc., are giving way, at some B-schools, to what’s been called “designer majors.”

If you’re interested in health care, for instance, you’ll be trained to apply knowledge from all the traditional concentrations to the field of health care -- resulting in a designer major in health care.

Already Vanderbilt and MIT have prestigious designer majors in e-commerce. Yale and Michigan have especially delicious-looking designer majors in environmental management.

Dare we call these “holistic” M.B.A.s?

Visionary J.D.s

From time immemorial, the core law school curriculum focused on the legal problems of big corporations and wealthy individuals. Now that’s changing. Even the basic contracts and property courses are being modified to include the problems of smaller entities and ordinary citizens.

“Law needs to be taught and understood as it affects all kinds of people,” explains Harvard Law School prof Gerry Singsen.

Mediation and arbitration (aka “alternative dispute resolution,” or ADR) are no longer looked down upon by law schools. In the 1980s, few offered courses on ADR, and most of those were taught by outsiders. Today over 700 ADR courses and clinics are being taught -- at nearly every one of our 180 law schools.

Some law schools are so convinced of the importance of ADR that they’ve introduced dispute resolution concepts into all required first-year courses! At the University of Missouri, for example, students taking first-year Torts learn how to negotiate settlements in medical malpractice cases.

“Law school education” used to be synonymous with “dry and narrow,” but you won’t find that in law schools today. Courses exploring the social, political, and philosophical dimensions of the law are proliferating nearly everywhere.

Just as paradigm-shattering is the “globalization” of law schools, which used to be incredibly U.S.-centric. Harvard offers 40 courses on aspects of international law now, Columbia 46, and NYU is pumping $75 million into its effort to transform itself into the world’s “first global law school.”

At Harvard and NYU, foreign teachers and students are the rage, and international cases and perspectives are being integrated into all required courses (e.g., Civil Procedure students now study the British practice of awarding attorneys’ fees to the winning side).

Even the Mickey Mouse requirement called Legal Ethics is being transformed, at most law schools, into a course touching on legal ideals and the “new professionalism” (i.e., the idea that there’s more to lawyering than making gobs of money). “We’re not trying to impose values,” explains Northeastern University’s law school dean, “but to say, ‘Don’t leave your values, your culture, your spirituality at the door, because we need them. We’re convinced they make you a better lawyer.”

Free to choose

If you really think that society is corrupt and its institutions are corrupt and you’d be better off outside them, then don’t go to professional school!

But if you think being a social change agent means acquiring invaluable expertise and a chance to use it in significant ways for the common good, then professional school today will equip you as no other institution or experience can.

Don’t get me wrong: It is hard and expensive, and sometimes lonely. But student loans are universally available now. And you will never wake up in the middle of the night with the terrible realization that -- unlike some of your peers -- you never gave yourself permission to become all that you could be.


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