A Passing (Personal) Comment on “Academic Institutes”

After posting earlier about think tanks, a friend of mine messaged me to inquire whether the black-box nature of think tanks is also present in formal academic institutes, that is, subdivisions existing within university schools or departments which are dedicated to a particularized field of study. The reason he asked me this is because I spent nearly five years associated with one directed toward international aviation law and had up-close familiarity with numerous others covering, inter alia, human rights, intellectual property, and animal law (ugh). My frank answer was, “I don’t know. It depends.” I realize that’s not terribly helpful, but given the sheer size and diversity of academic institutes out there, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to color them all with a single bucket of paint. Besides, I know very little about the nature of institutes dedicated to, say, the physical sciences or the arts; my “realm” was always law. With that out of the way, I do think it is fair to say that legal-academic institutes which rely heavily on donor money, particularly corporate and special-interest donor money, are always at risk of being captured ideologically. For instance, here is an excerpt from the mission statement of my former institute, which appears on its website:

IALI [The International Aviation Law Institute] strives to be the premier source for research, analysis, and study of international aviation law and policy. To achieve this mission, IALI is engaged in educating the next generation of experts in aviation law and policy through both its journal, Issues in Aviation Law and Policy, and its academic programs; originating and disseminating groundbreaking research and analysis of timely issues in aviation law and policy for the benefit of academics, policymakers and industry stakeholders; and acting as a forum to inform, advocate and promote a liberal, free market approach to the transnational air transport industry.

Notice the last sentence: IALI exists to “act[] as a forum to inform, advocate and promote a liberal, free market approach to the transnational airport industry” (emphasis mine). (In the interest of full disclosure, dear readers, I had a direct hand in penning that line many moons ago.) It should come as no surprise that IALI receives direct support from several major international carriers, including United and FedEx, and regularly participates in conferences dedicated to air-transport liberalization. (Also in the interest of full disclosure, dear readers, I directly benefited from this donor money for most of my time with IALI.) I can say from personal experience that that there was little-to-no tolerance at IALI or among its allies for any research or writing suggesting that the air-transport industry and its workers may be better off through the introduction of more regulation or transnational oversight. Indeed, the only time regulation was ever mentioned with a positive ring is when it protected airlines colluding with each other under blanket grants of antitrust immunity. When I authored (eventually co-authored) an article published in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, I was compelled to insert footnotes and qualifying language suggesting that not only should international air carriers not be subject to transnational emissions regulations, but that man-made climate change itself is possibly a myth. The donor base for IALI would have been unhappy otherwise.

How common this behavior is among legal-academic institutes is anyone’s guess, though very few exist without external support. There has been a longstanding suspicion that institutes dedicated to the so-called “Law & Economics” movement have been directed primarily by interests favoring free-market capitalism. Similarly, human-rights law institutes invariably favor Western, liberal-democratic responses to human-rights issues and act to promote an Enlightenment-era conception of “rights” rather than, say, study the efficacy of international human rights law (a far more defensible academic enterprise). Given how closely law is intertwined with policy and politics, I would not be the least bit surprised to find that a majority of legal-academic institutes directed by particular ideological orientations that favor the interests of their respective donors.