Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Platoon

The first casualty of war is innocence


It's the 20th anniversary of Platoon, a movie judged good enough in its time to warrant Oscars for best picture and best director. Platoon, so I suspect, has worn rather poorly over time, if only because:
  • It gave Oliver Stone a huge directorial breakthrough, which in retrospect might not have been such a good thing.

  • The idea that America finally "got past" the Vietnam War in the 1980s seems, two decades and one quagmire later, slightly absurd.

  • What seemed upon first glance to be a gritty epic about the horrors of war became upon further inspection little more than an overwrought allegory of good versus evil.
All that and more is true. But bear with me. If you watch the original trailer one more time, you just might find some redeeming value in the defining war movie of the 1980s:



Notwithstanding The Last Temptation of Christ, Platoon was the movie in which Willem Dafoe got his first opportunity to play the role of Jesus. Dafoe's character went by the name Elias and represented good in the form of marijuana and ethical warfare. Dafoe's foil, Tom Berenguer, depicted the crafty but corrupt Barnes, a ruthless survivor who treats war crime as another day at the office. These sergeants fought for the soul of Pvt. Chris Taylor (depicted by Charlie Sheen) and the rest of their platoon. Yes, it's allegory of the bluntest sort. But MoneyLaw is partial to allegory, and "good versus evil" is really the only story in the world.

Burning the villageAs a war movie, Platoon did address two Vietnam-era practices with a considerable degree of daring and sensitivity. The first, fragging, involved the deliberate killing of unpopular officers by soldiers under their command. The second, the FNG syndrome, involved the resentment that some seasoned veterans felt toward newcomers (such as Chris Taylor). The F____ New Guy typically represented a liability rather than a benefit to an established platoon.

Both fragging and the FNG syndrome are relevant to academia. In Three Deans, I hinted in passing at the prospect that unscrupulous faculty members might frag a dean, in complicity with central university administration or a captured board of trustees. That subject, in due course, will command more attention here at MoneyLaw. What I'd like to address right now is the FNG syndrome.

There may be no greater responsibility in faculty governance than the recruiting, fostering, and development of junior colleagues. The future of every law school hinges on this task. And there may be no sharper indicator of a senior professor's character than his or her attitude toward untenured colleagues.

Faculties on the rise are filled with FNGs. Newly minted law professors rarely if ever cover their "fair" share of courses. Since law schools recruit professors mostly without regard to teaching ability, these newly arrived professors' classroom performances can be uneven. And perhaps most unsettling to many incumbents is the fact that new professors are rivals for plum teaching assignments and other privileges of faculty membership that are as prized as they are intangible.

This is so simple and so obvious a proposition that I shall not dwell long in stating it: Access to teaching assignments is crucial to the development of young professors. For a veteran, taking on a new teaching preparation is inconvenient. For someone who has yet to clear the tenure hurdle, being forced repeatedly to find one's way through different teaching assignments, especially if those assignments lie far afield from a nascent research agenda, poses a singular threat to that professor's career prospects.

So the ultimate lesson of Platoon for legal academia is . . . platooning. Virtuous, Elias-like colleagues freely give teaching assignments to their junior counterparts. Selfish faculty members -- sometimes so odiously selfish that the term colleague applies strictly in theory -- hoard their teaching assignments, often for no reason more compelling than a desire to avoid the chore of developing new lesson plans. As I wrap up thirteen plus years at Minnesota, I thank those senior colleagues who made room for me in this school's public law curriculum. (I encountered no rivals whenever I sought to teach the law of regulated industries, among other offerings of that sort.) As I moved from juniority toward more seasoned status, I sincerely hope I have been as generous toward my less senior colleagues.

The upshot? If you want to create a culture of collegiality, start by hiring -- and being -- a faculty of platoon players.

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