Thesis Title: Learning from Others to Make Sense of the Law: Legal Response Policy Making in Higher Education
Committee: Keith Whittington, David Lewis, Nolan McCarty
Abstract: This research explores how organizations decide how to respond to the laws that affect them. It investigates how they convert abstract legal changes into concrete policy responses. Much of the legal impact literature focuses exclusively on either on legal institutions and social outcomes, or on the dynamics within organizations. This work investigates systematic variation across organizations and issues. It analyzes the actors affected by legal changes as if they were political institutions making complex policy choices. It focuses on the importance of information and the ways in which these actors learn from others facing the same problems. It combines a theoretical model of policy diffusion and learning from others with original interview and survey data. The model points to, and emphasizes, the interdependence of policy decisions. It builds on the largely empirical diffusion literature by deriving clear predictions from straightforward micro-foundations. It yields propositions about which organizations are most likely to rely on learning from others, and who they are likely to learn from. The data, collected from colleges and universities, concern how organizations decided how to respond to legal changes in areas such as affirmative action and medical privacy. They provide support for the targeted-learning model. They suggest that other colleges and universities look to each others' policies in systematic ways as a response to the information available to them. They do so to maximize the likelihood of making a good decision in a difficult situation. For example, the propensity to learn varies inversely with capacity, and there is less learning when other concrete policy guidance is available. By approaching legal response from this angle, the research supports a general model of policy choice under uncertainty which has applications to other political institutions, settings, and activities. It also suggests new ways of thinking about legal implementation and it has implications for those using legal strategies in pursuit of social change.