There are a few centres like CHLET in Indian law schools that are currently extremely active at doing research and advocacy around specific social issues. National Law School’s Centre for Child and the Law and its Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy immediately come to mind as trailblazers in this area. Internationally, such centres have also become the norm. I believe Harvard Law School has over twenty (and its Berkman Centre on Internet and Society might be considered the leading activist group in global civil society today working on internet governance). At their most developed, these centres act like mini-NGO’s embedded in the law school, resourcing their own activities and funding their own staff. They usually begin around a faculty member’s interest, but can quickly develop a life of their own (especially if they are able to bring in significant self-funded staff). The Brennan Centre at NYU over the years has seemed less and less part of NYU and more and more its own autonomous (and quite large) activist group/think tank. Nor is the development limited to law schools. Jeffrey Sachs’ Earth Institute at Columbia University is perhaps the best known example of such an institution in the world.
I have sometimes wondered what the development of these centres in the last couple decades tells us about changing patterns of education (or perhaps changing patterns of funding for non-profits). At one level they are a logical extension of activism by faculty, which has a long history on many universities – just better organized and funded. These centres provide an opportunity for students to get firsthand experience in the issues involved and the centres bring in speakers and host conferences on campus. In the US some alumni have sometimes complained about centres they don’t ideologically agree with, but since most of the centres are self-funded, declare themselves non-partisan, and are initiated by individual faculty members they are not easy targets. That said, they carry the name of the school and so can often attract more funding or attention for their activities as a result.
It will be interesting to see how these centres evolve in India and elsewhere. High end activism requires sophisticated knowledge. Faculty and students want to engage in real issues they care about in the world. It’s no mystery that these centres are then popping up on law school campuses. Time will tell how they end up shaping civil society and the issues they focus on.