Friday, November 24, 2006

Proxy battles

In commentary on my recent post, Juniority, Orin Kerr writes:

From the anime series, Ergo Proxy (エルゴプラクシー)
I'm confused.

The widespread use of VAPs is all about MoneyBall, right? Schools are no longer relying exclusively on law school credentials, and instead want actual proof of writing ability. The more, the better. It's hard to write at a law firm, though, so candidates do VAPs in order to get a chance to write and prove they can and will write.

I would think you would applaud this; it seems to me that it's all about actually proving scholarly merit rather than relying on proxy credentials. In other words, it's all about the spread of MoneyLaw.
Yes, Orin, a clarification is warranted. So here goes.

I do applaud the rise of the visiting assistant professorship. Anything that favors performance over credentials is good. To the extent that VAP programs help worthy candidates prove their scholarly mettle, they deserve to be praised and promoted. I'm proud of my contributions to a VAP program that has produced the likes of Susan Franck, Kirsten Matoy Carlson, and Mary Pat Byrn, all of whom were able to establish scholarly beachheads as VAPs. Susan is flourishing at Nebraska; Kirsten and Mary Pat, I can confidently predict, will soon be attending AALS events as members rather than supplicants.

Other recent MoneyLaw commenters, however, have put their fingers on two caveats:
  1. Suzanna Sherry exhorts us not to overlook teaching candidates who "didn't know they wanted to be a law professor from the age of 10 and/or have been working too hard at a 'real law' job instead of going into some VAP, LLM or other program." Suzanna astutely notes that "the ability to do the latter can be severely constrained for some people, especially those with family obligations." Well said. As matters stand, this business raises very steep barriers to entry by people of ordinary means. If the VAP becomes a de facto prerequisite to a tenure-track job, it will raise those barriers even higher.

  2. The ubiquitous A. Nonny Mouse delivers the point even more sharply than Suzanna (if such a thing were possible!): "the new 'helping hands' for junior professors serve mostly to make entry to tenure track slots later, more costly, more laborious, more credentialist." Mr./Ms. Mouse adds: "It's similar to adding a 2-3 year layer of non-equity partnership at law firms; both are ways not to completely pull up the gangplank but rahter to make the gangplank longer and longer."
Ergo Proxy, againJuniority addressed one of these concerns -- namely, that the lengthening of the path into the professoriate might inadvertently reduce the sharpness and the speed with which new ideas pierce the consciousness of incumbent law professors. What Suzanna Sherry and A. Nonny Mouse identify is a related but distinct concern: the risk that the VAP concept, intended originally as a pro-MoneyLaw tool, might itself metastasize into a proxy credential in its own right.

As with so much else, there is no substitute for hard work and anti-elitist vigilance on the part of evaluators of academic talent. Visiting assistant professorships can indeed enable people with empty or modest writing portfolios to put pen to paper in a way that private practice cannot. But already we are observing the rise of an insidious pecking order among VAP placements. With big names come big prestige; Bigelow and Climenko are analogous to IBM and Microsoft. This is not to say that these programs do a poor job in selecting their participants. I've had the privilege of encountering three Climenko fellows in the past few months, and all of them have impressed me immensely. The key is to keep one's eyes focused on each candidate's actual scholarly record, plus other indicators of as-yet unrealized scholarly promise, without being bedazzled by the prestige attached with that candidate's VAP program.

So, Orin, we have traveled a long way in pursuit of some clarity. Let's see if we can find it. The presence of a VAP post on a teaching candidate's CV may explain how she or he found the time to write. But we should not be so bedazzled by the prestige of the school at which the candidate held the post that we neglect to read and evaluate the actual portfolio. And perhaps even more important, it behooves us not to treat a VAP stint as this generation's obligatory rite of academic passage, in the sense that law review membership and a clerkship have historically represented compulsory stops on the road to becoming a law professor.


Blogger Orin said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jim. At the same time, I don't think I understand your concern.

Your fear, as I understand it, is that the introduction of VAPs in an effort to increase focus on merit will actually lead us away from merit: VAPs will become an "obligatory rite of passage" that will so bedazzle us that we will no longer look at the quality of the candidate. I guess I don't understand why we should think that is a realistic possibility, as I don't have any evidence that the market is over- (or under-) valuing these positions.

More broadly, the fact that a hierarchy is emerging isn't necessarily objectionable. Hierarchy and the proxy effect are hard to avoid when there is high supply and low demand. But I don't see any evidence that faculties are aware of these hierarchies, or see them as even remotely important.

In response to Suzanna Sherry's point, I have thought that VAP programs were a way of leveling the playing field for the candidates who haven't always known that they wanted to be law professors. In my experience, the folks who have been planning to be lawprofs from their first day at Yale and already have a few articles under their belts and recs from bigwig professors don't need VAP positions. And as best I can tell, they aren't applying for them. In my experience, it tends to be the people who are a little late to the game that feel they need to play catch-up with a VAP program. Is my sense of things incorrect?

As for Anonymous's comment, I would think it is counter to official MoneyBall principles: it seems to criticize VAP positions because it makes the road to tenure harder and less certain. I would think that the MoneyBall view is that the road to tenure *should* be longer and more uncertain; Any system that actually requires candidates to prove themselves on the merits presumably requires given them time to do so, with a nonzero chance of failure. In the old days in which you could write one or two articles and automatically get tenure, the road was easy and short.

11/24/2006 6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the appropriateness of VAP programs for moneylaw purposes depends, I think, on how one obtains a VAP position. If many of the traditional pitfalls of valuing pedigree over performance are reflected in VAP hiring, then it is certainly in violation of moneylaw principles. On the other hand, if VAP hiring is based on performance, rather than pedigree, then it promotes moneylaw principles.

While I don't have much empirical evidence on this point, my guess is that it tends to violate moneylaw principles. Perhaps this empirical question is a good project for the moneylaw website.

11/24/2006 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comments from anonymous accused the academy of rent-seeking by erecting higher barriers to entry. There was no suggestion the higher entry barriers were for quality purposes. To the contrary the suggestion was that it's classic guild protection. How can anyone claim that the observation runs counter to the principles of MoneyBall?

11/24/2006 8:29 PM  
Blogger Orin said...

Anonymous (the second),

I re-read the comments from the original Anonymous, and they seem to focus on the road becoming "longer and harder" as a general matter, not for the specific reason of protecting the guild.

11/25/2006 5:53 PM  
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