Sunday, October 15, 2006

On the money: A MoneyLaw series


On the Money

A MoneyLaw series in three parts


The Volokh Conspiracy and the Open University are conducting a vigorous debate over the virtues vel non of a Moneyball-style approach to academic hiring (or, as we like to say on this forum, a MoneyLaw-style approach). For his part, the Conspiracy's Ilya Somin roots for the Oakland A's, so deeply does he admire Billy Beane's system for building teams for less by finding players bypassed by teams with evaluative methods as shallow as their pockets are deep.

Sad YankeesAn aside to MoneyLaw's baseball-loving audience: With the A's out of the race, Ilya should join me and other Beane counters in rooting for a Detroit-Saint Louis World Series. Whichever matchup gives the network the worst ratings in the big markets is one that Moneyball aficionados should love. No Mets, no Yankees, no problems.

Aligned on the other side of this debate is Open U.'s Daniel Drezner. A political scientist by training, Drezner identifies two distinct "downsides of academic Moneyball":
  1. In the end, you get poached. All approaches and areas of inquiry become fashionable at some point -- even military historians. Once a department has attained a flush of prominence, the old standbys will come with their deep pockets to make lucrative free agent signings. The cream of a department's crop gets poached, leading to a slow decline.

  2. Drezner concedes that the "gain of a short-term boost might be worth the price of long-term backsliding, were it not for the second hazard of a Moneyball approach." To wit:

  3. The risks of overspecialization. When a department hires a lot in a specialty or methodology that is currently unappreciated, they are essentially letting these scholars run the show. A history department dominated by military historians, a political science department dominated by postmodernists, or a law faculty dominated by critical legal theorists risks appearing unfriendly to good scholars from other traditions.
Why does Drezner dread overspecialization so deeply? "If departments overspecialize," he writes:
they risk falling into a trap: they can only successfully recruit people from a particular scholarly tradition, but the best of those people will eventually be lured away to premier institutions. Because the social sciences tend to see cutting-edge scholarship emerge from different approaches over time, a department that specializes in one approach risks acquiring blinders about where the rest of the field is going. The end result: a mediocre department stuffed with tenured academics who can't get a job anywhere else and don't know how to identify the up-and-comers in a discipline.
AlbatrossPerhaps the academic culture of political science is radically unlike that of law, but Daniel Drezner gives me little reason to retreat from the empirically oriented approach to hiring that I have attempted, bit by bit, to outline and to defend here at MoneyLaw. And I still wear this albatross that Bill Henderson so gently draped around my neck: MoneyLaw still "needs a theory."

Very well then. Let my response to Daniel Drezner (and, by extension, my endorsement of Ilya Somin) take the form of a three-part series. If MoneyLaw readers choose to interpret this series as the beginning of my long-awaited theoretical elaboration, all the better. This introduction outlines Daniel Drezner's two objections to academic MoneyBall: (1) "poaching" and (2) "overspecialization." I'll take the liberty of calling it part 1 of the series. Part 2, not surprisingly, will address the poaching concern, while part 3 will address putative overspecialization.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff Yates said...

I will leave to Jim the full development of the Moneylaw theory, but I have a couple of brief points about the concerns with moneylaw mentioned by Drezner (and others).

1) Poaching. Certainly this will occur; I have no doubt about that. However, it will not always happen and it will only happen to a degree; and finally, there are steps that moneyball schools (even those with constrained budgets) can employ to combat poaching. I will leave to later comments the details, but some basics are having a merit based comp/resource system and handling the "small things" that lead many faculty to leave. But let's assume that there is poaching - this is not the end of the world. You get good productive people for a period of time and they produce and do good things while they are there and when they leave you replace them with good, undervalued people and the cycle continues. Drezner may have a point that poaching leads to limits on moneylaw hiring strategies - with regard to pol sci, I dont think that you can use Moneyball to go from top 40 to top 5. Maybe top 40 to top 25 or so, but then the poaching will be too much - however, as outlined below, this is likely better than how a top 40 department will do under traditional hiring methods.

2) Specialization. Certainly this is one approach to moneyball (although I really question whether anyone in pol sci is really going the postmodernism route). It is also not the only moneyball strategy. In prior posts, Jim lays out a number of reasons why candidates may be undervalued, and specialization is only one small part. This is hardly a flaw in moneylaw. Jim's primary point is to value performance over pedigree; that's not specialization, that's just valuing people who perform and if you have too many of those types on faculty, then that's a good problem to have.

Finally, related to both points above, I am not sure if I see a better alternative posed by moneylaw detractors. Yes, the burden is on Jim to posit the theory, but he has to do so under some assumed understanding as to what the alternative to moneyball strategy might be. The status quo (a good guess as to alternative strategies) would suggest that past performance is not as important in hiring and building a dept or law school as potential performance with "potential" defined through some shorthand devices (pedigree, big name references, etc.). Now moneyball doesnt say that you cant hire people with the traditional indicators of potential, just that past performance is also very important.

I apologize for the long post. I'll be eager to see Jim's reply to critics.

10/16/2006 9:11 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Jim: In the course of this could you please define what it means to win the academic game. At least by some assessments, winning would mean using the Yankees' approach. You win my spending the most regardless of any other measure.

10/16/2006 1:07 PM  
Blogger Nancy Rapoport said...

What are our options? My dad's a chemist, and he taught me two very important things (well, he taught me more than two, but here are two of them): 1. If you do something the same way every time, you're going to get the same results; and 2. If you're expecting certain results from an experiment and you get those results, how do you know that you didn't get those results from chance, rather than from theory?

Here's my point: For the longest time, lots of law schools have looked to performance in law school--coupled with the rank of the law school itself--to make hiring decisions. Certainly, many (most?) of the hires coming from that process have proven to be superb, but it's hard to separate the person's talents from the school's reputation, if one goes that route in faculty hiring.

By restricting the search to the tried-and-true method, one loses so many other great candidates. Some of the best folks that we hired while I was dean at University of Houston included people from the U of Miami, Utah, Texas, Northwestern, and Michigan (as well as folks from Yale and Harvard and Stanford, too). Had the folks at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford gone to one of the other schools from which we hired, would that have made them worse scholars and teachers?


As for poaching, I have to admit that being the poacher was my favorite thing to do at Houston. Getting poached was always a threat, and each year that I was dean, we fended off some poaching activities. We kept all but one person on our faculty, and it certainly wasn't due to our high salaries (we're a state school!) and gorgeous building (described by one visitor as "early East Berlin bunker"). I'd rather have our faculty in play every year than have a faculty consisting of immobile professors no one wants to poach.

10/16/2006 3:02 PM  

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