Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Oliver R. Smoot

»  Reprinted from The Cardinal Lawyer  «

October 2008 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the night that immortalized the name of Oliver R. Smoot. In 1958, Smoot was a freshman at M.I.T. and a pledge in the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. On the evening of October 4, Smoot's fraternity brothers decided that he had the right height (5 feet, 7 inches) and the right name to serve as a human yardstick for measuring the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge between Cambridge and Boston. Over and over the brothers of LXA tumbled Oliver Smoot. When the night was over, Lambda Chi Alpha triumphantly declared that the Mass. Ave. Bridge spanned 364.4 Smoots, plus or minus one ear.

Oliver SmootAfter graduating from M.I.T., Smoot literally set high standards. He earned a law degree at Georgetown. Smoot went on to serve not only as president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), but also as chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Upon his recent retirement from ANSI, Smoot gave lengthy interviews to his alma mater, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio.

The Smoot is now a unit of measurement corresponding to 67 inches, or 170.18 centimeters en système métrique. Google Calculator and Google Earth offer users the option of calculating distances in Smoots. Just remember that 10 feet equals 1.79104478 Smoots.

Here's why Smoot matters to education:Oliver Smoot's long, restless night in October 1958 made his name synonymous with the student as a unit of measurement. His fraternity brothers envisioned the measurement in question solely in terms of distance. They can be forgiven for their shortsightedness; they were merely engineers, after all, not lawyers, let alone full-time educators or academic administrators. A little bit of visionary academic leadership readily transforms the Smoot into a unit of financial measurement.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has never confirmed or denied my suspicion, but I imagine that young Oliver Smoot paid full fare to attend M.I.T. In financial rather than spatial terms, a year's tuition equals one Smoot. To be sure, the precise measure of a Smoot varies locally — public in-state tuition, public out-of-state tuition, and private tuition notoriously and dramatically vary. But from the student's perspective, a Smoot is a Smoot. One Smoot represents the amount, net of grant-based financial aid but not of student debt, that a student must pay her or his school for one year's instruction.

It turns out that the Smoot is an extraordinarily powerful measure of academic finance. Schools can best honor their obligation to their true constituents — the people who pay for the entire educational apparatus and experience — by measuring, and (ideally) justifying, their expenditures according to how many students must pay full tuition in order to finance a particular item of spending. At the University of Louisville School of Law, for instance, a single in-state Smoot can fund the nonsalary portion of the budget of the career services office. If supplemented by a student technology fee and a modest budgetary allocation from the University of Louisville's central budget, two Smoots will cover the Law School's ordinary technology needs for a year. Three Smoots will give every willing student at the Law School the chance to take part in an intercollegiate moot court competition. A full year's expert instruction, in the form of a tenure-track or tenured professor, costs anywhere between five and ten Smoots. And so on.

Despite their legendary competitiveness, law students rarely if ever flip their junior counterparts end over end simply to make an intellectual point. But like their counterparts in engineering, nursing, medicine, business, music, and the liberal arts, law students do pay tuition. I promise to run this Law School on the same basis my students pay for their education: One Smoot at a time.


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