In Which I Become Florida Man!

by Neil H. Buchanan

I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted an offer to join the faculty at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.  Specifically, my title will be Professor of Law and James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar Chair in Taxation.  Quite a mouthful!

As Dorf on Law is mostly devoted to legal, policy, economic, and political analyses, this type of announcement is out of our norm.  But given that this blog's authors change jobs less than once per decade, none of this can be called normal.  Here, I will offer some thoughts on UF, why I am moving, and (to fulfill my need to talk about policy) some musings on the state of higher education in the United States today.

I will begin by acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room, noted in the title of this column, which is the Florida Man meme.  For those readers who are blissfully unaware, for the last several years the world has been regaled with stories of the bizarre and humorous (but sometimes deadly and serious) things that make the news in pieces that begin: "Florida man arrested for ..."  This includes throwing a baby gator through a drive-thru window as well as quite a bit of situationally unexpected nudity.  Browse for yourselves.  It is a wondrously weird place.

Indeed, several years ago, in one of my columns discussing home ownership versus renting, I announced that I was buying a house (which was actually consistent with my argument that renting should be the rebuttable presumption, but it nonetheless felt inconsistent).  Joking that I must be talking about some other Neil Buchanan, I provided a link to a website with information about a different Neil Buchanan (not just a different Neil Buchanan but another Neil H. Buchanan), shown in a mugshot.  Guess what state he is from?

Seriously, however, this is a very happy time for me.  It is, of course, also bittersweet, because I will be leaving my position at George Washington University after twelve years.  My research assistants, my students, the librarians, and the staff have all made my time at GW valuable and memorable.  I have enjoyed the support and camaraderie of some excellent colleagues.  But UF has offered me an opportunity that I find compelling, with a welcoming and highly accomplished faculty and an increasingly impressive student body.

In part, the attraction is simple: UF has always had one of the strongest graduate tax law programs in the country.  Depending on the year, UF's program is typically ranked either third (after NYU and Georgetown) or second (tied with Georgetown) in the U.S.  Over the years, when my GW students have asked about LL.M. programs, I have typically said something like this: "It's obvious why NYU and Georgetown, given their respective locations, would have strong tax programs.  But Florida is strong in tax simply because it is strong in tax.  If you want to earn a valuable and highly respected LL.M. (or S.J.D.), and to do so while living in a nice college town with a low cost of living, go to Florida!"

And I meant it.  It truly is a bit of a mystery why a quiet, out-of-the-way college town better known for its football team ended up with a powerhouse tax law program.  I am, in any event, glad that it did.

There were two thoughts that came to mind during the decision-making process, both of which are worth noting here.

The smaller one, but one that is very much an indication of the times, was that I had moment of panic when I was told that I would be offered a named chair.  Why?  All I could think was, "Please, don't let it be named for a slave owner or a robber baron!"  As one can imagine, especially given Florida's history, the former was plausible and the latter was likely.  As it happens, however, my chair was named after a longtime UF tax law professor, James J. Freeland, who was widely admired and even beloved by his former students.

Indeed, Freeland appears to be the major force behind the unlikely emergence of Florida as a top tax program, which I described above.  The chair was established and funded by fellow faculty, former students, and friends.  Not only does the chair therefore have no historically problematic associations, it is associated with a man who was a serious academic and apparently simply a good person.

Freeland passed away while I was still in law school, so I never had the pleasure of meeting him; but I have heard him mentioned warmly many times by tax colleagues around the country.  (As an aside, I also took note from the UF web page commemorating Freeland that he "preferred an unstructured style — eschewing standing behind a lectern and using formal notes."  My students can confirm that I will honor that approach!)

The larger issue that I thought about in making my decision was the kind of university with which I was willing to be associated.  Despite the private institutions that are fairly littered across my resume, I have always strongly believed in public education, and I have thus decried American states' disinvestment in what is arguably the country's greatest asset.  America's universities have unfortunately been under siege for over a generation, especially its public universities.

That has led to some truly great universities suffering serious declines.  Although no one would say that the flagship universities in Wisconsin and North Carolina are not still very good, both have been seriously damaged by funding cuts that have been motivated both by penny-wise-pound-foolish thinking and by politically motivated animus.

I have learned that Florida's political class has decided that it is important for the nation's third-most-populous state to support a flagship university that can be mentioned in the same breath as the University of Texas-Austin, the elite California public campuses, and the University of Michigan.  And if one thinks about it, it truly is surprising that the state of Florida has become as important as it has without also being home to a public university that is widely acknowledged to be on a par with those other great institutions.

Because of this disparity, the state has evidently decided to put serious resources into making UF a top public institution.  As problematic as the various ranking systems can be, the evidence indicates that Florida has embarked on a highly successful effort to improve the reputation and the reality of its public universities, especially the main campus in Gainesville.

None of which is to say that UF has ever been weak.  One of the non-rankings markers of being an elite research university is membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU).  The AAU's roster of 62 universities includes the usual suspects -- the entire Ivy League (less Dartmouth), 13 of the 14 Big Ten universities (a description that sounds odd but is not actually innumerate), most of the Pac 12, and the well known elite universities that have eschewed Division I athletic programs (such as the University of Rochester, Washington-St. Louis, Carnegie-Mellon, NYU, and Cal Tech and MIT, with Canada represented by McGill and Toronto).

The University of Florida was admitted to the AAU in 1985, before (among others) Emory, Boston University, or Rutgers.  It is not, therefore, a matter of the state of Florida having to suddenly turn a backwater into a serious place.  UF has been serious all along, and the state has decided to add the resources necessary to move it to the next level.  Again, this is all in the context of a generally negative environment for higher education in most other parts of this country.
As an added matter of some importance to me, I noted that UF is one of the universities that has seen its law school historically lag behind the university as a whole (the opposite of the situation at my current university), and the university has shown its commitment to assisting the law school's efforts not only to move up in the law school world but to catch up with the rest of its own campus.

This effort has been greatly assisted by the hiring of Laura Rosenbury as dean, drawing her away from a highly successful career as a law professor at WashU.  As it happens, Laura and I had met when she was an entry-level professor and I was in my transition from economics into law, during which time we were both attending conferences on feminist legal theory, a field in which she went on to stardom (and in which she is still actively producing scholarship, despite all of her decanal duties -- such as convincing semi-reluctant tax scholars to accept the Florida Man mantle).

I suspect that every professor has a special affection for the dean who recruited him or her, simply because successful recruitment efforts necessarily mean that both sides were happy to say yes.  Despite what might appear to be personal bias, however, I can say that Dean Rosenbury stepped into what had been a very unsettled and difficult situation at UF (including a failed immediately-preceding dean search that become quite public, as well as some initial resistance to new leadership), yet she has been successful by almost any measure that one would care to identify.

The good news is that institutions are strengthened by these successful efforts by individuals, yet the resulting strength can last beyond any particular individual's tenure.  Deans and "eminent" tax professors come and go, but the universities -- if supported and nurtured in the way that seems to be happening at Florida -- continue to be a force for good in the world.