Are Federalist Society Speaking Engagements a Major Advantage for non-Liberal Academics?

Brian Leiter argues that the opportunity to speak at Federalist Society student chapters is an important career advantage for conservative and libertarian academics. Co-blogger David Bernstein believes otherwise.

On balance, I think David is right. As he points out, the speaking engagements that really help an academic career are those attended by other academics. And professors rarely attend events sponsored by student groups. They also give little or no weight to speeches before student groups in making hiring and promotion decisions.

Like David, I have spoken at many Fed Soc student chapter events. When I first started doing Fed Soc talks, I almost never saw a faculty member in the audience. Later, as my academic work became better known, I did start to see some (though not much more than David’s estimated median of about one per speech). Most of these academics, however, were people who already knew me or at least had an interest in my work. They would probably have continued to follow my scholarship even if they hadn’t come to the Fed Soc event.

Speaking to student audiences can help an academic career indirectly because it improves your public speaking skills. On balance, however, the academic who wants to maximize his career prospects would do better to spend the same time writing more articles and/or speaking at faculty events.

The real benefit of Fed Soc speaking engagements is the opportunity to influence public debate by presenting your ideas to a wider audience. That’s the main reason why I do it (also, it’s fun!). It’s also, of course, the reason why the Fed Soc sponsors these events in the first place. But I don’t expect it to do much for my career prospects as an academic.

To the extent that Fed Soc speaking invitations are an advantage for right of center scholars, they are offset by American Constitution Society speaking opportunities for liberals. Like Fed Soc, the ACS has chapters at nearly all major law schools, and they too regularly bring in outside speakers. I’ve spoken at several ACS events myself (I was invited to provide ideological balance on a panel with multiple participants). But just as Fed Soc chapters invite primarily libertarians and conservatives, ACS chapters understandably invite mostly liberals.

It’s also worth noting that many law schools have research centers that, while formally neutral, actually focus primarily on left of center ideas. Consider, for example, the many law schools with “social justice” research centers. Few if any top law schools have similar research centers organized around libertarian or conservative issues. Most research centers regularly sponsor academic conferences that invite outside speakers. And unlike speaking events organized by student groups, events organized by faculty-run research centers often do attract a large faculty audience and have a real impact on professors’ career prospects.

I don’t object to the presence of these research centers. Even when they are not ideologically neutral, they can still make useful contributions to scholarship. But the speaking opportunities they offer to faculty have much greater career-enhancing value than those provided by student groups such as Fed Soc or ACS.

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