Saturday, March 17, 2007

More on The Commons

A week or so ago I wrote about the willingness of those who make appeals to collegiality to behave in the least collegial fashion possible by heaping externalities on their colleagues. To some extent I was attempting to distinguish "facial collegiality" -- let's have lunch, how's your family, benign sounding emails -- from "substantive collegiality." I listed several sources of likely externalities and, substantive uncollegiality.

1. Refusals to teach in the summer. (If there is to be a program, others have to do it.)
2. Capping classes when not essential and, if it is, not teaching multiple sections. (X number of students need Y number of credits; someone will have to teach them.)
3. Demanding and getting reduced teaching loads. (As with number 2, more teaching for others)
4. Pre-Holiday class cancellation. (Pressure on those who do not.)
5. High grades. (Pressure on all to raise grades or suffer the wrath of the students.)
6. Demanding a specific teaching schedule. (Other fill in the remaining times and days.)
7. Demanding to teach highly specialized courses. (Others will have to teach the law courses.)
8. Gobbling up travel funds for whimsical trips. (Never fine but worse if there is limited money.)

There are others but you get the drift: Others in the law school help "pay" for these things.

One commentator wrote to ask why I was surprised. Mary Reilly wrote to tell about trying to explain the externalities of high grades at a faculty meeting and being discounted.

Their reactions and playing out the theme a bit further led to three thoughts:

1. How can people who teach so much about property rights, and identifying and reacting to externalities not understand the implications of those teachings in the context of the day to day life of a law school.? Is it another case of avoiding any analysis that creates dissonance? I see this all the time in scholarship so it makes sense that it is at work when assessing one's own behavior.

2. How far does the failure to internalize have to go before a law school begins to experience something like the “tragedy of the commons?” Here it is a bit tricky. It may not be that the “sheep” go out and find there is little to graze on. Instead the output is a bit different – students who are not as prepared for the bar exam or for practicing law as they should be and the amount and quality of scholarship declines. Plus, real as opposed to nominal collegiality falls.

3. To an economist, any cost imposed on another is an externality. On the other hand, it is only when law comes into the picture and defines rights that it has a practical meaning. This is because, in the absence of private contracts (hard to do with 30-60 people), or a solution to the prisoner’s dilemma (not solved on my faculty at least), clearly defined rights and enforcement are essential.

This is, of course, where deans come into the picture. Without clearly defined – not made up on an ad hoc basis – rules that everyone understands and which are backed by sanctions, the feeding frenzy is on and the commons is doomed.

This may sound like a tall order for administrators. Maybe, but shouldn’t the overall health of the law school be their highest priority? Ironically, consistent with my usual tendency, I have painted a relative positive a picture here. Rather than “rationalizers” of the commons by which I mean bringing order to the commons, many deans facilitate its destruction by avoiding controversy, rarely saying no to an externality producer, having no predictable standards, refusing to take responsibility for what happens under their watch, and taking actions that will pit one faculty member against another.

Interesting that the "nicest" administrators and faculty members may actually be the most destructive to the commons.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

An alternate view of the situation is that some professors are valuable for their research, others for their teaching, and still others for the service they perform at the school or in the wider community. Of course, it would be great if everyone excelled in each of these areas, but the Deans have to make do with what they've got. In those circumstances, isn't it entirely rational for the Dean to let some people slide on teaching as long as they are prolific scholars and let some people teach their favored schedule as long as they are teaching large loads during the year and helping to staff a summer program? Now, I know it doesn't work that way all the time and I know many schools have people of middling quality who just think they are outstanding in one of these areas and deserve special treatment. Nevertheless, I can't think of any law school where all law professors are equal on these fronts. Therefore, the notion that they should pull equal weight in teaching, committee service, etc doesn't strike me as obvious on its face. Of course, this also suggests that pay should not be lock-step, but failing that the distribution of perks like teaching loads and summer programs seems a reasonable proxy. This suggests your real complaint is with the allocation of these items (to the loudest complainers), not with their existence.

3/17/2007 5:38 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Dear Anon:

I agree. There may very well be specialization and specialists do not necessarily harm the commons. As long as they internalize the cost someway -- teach more students if they do not write, write much more than others if they teach little. In my experience it is a rare non scholar who asks for or is assigned additional teaching. Nor do people teaching a handful of students seem eager to teach an extra section of something. Maybe where you teach is different and, if so, I envy you. At my school and others that people have written to me about it is very close to a true commons problem. People ignore the impact they have on others and do not do not make and effort to internalize. In fact, my guess is that there may actually be a positive correlation between students taught and scholarly productivity.

3/18/2007 12:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I only can think of one professor who voluntarily teaches extra credit hours, although I know plenty who open up their wait lists voluntarily and teach more students They wouldn't justify it on grounds that they need to make up for their lack of writing, of course, but they get satisfaction about receiving recognition in an area in which they do excel. I also know lots of professors who don't apply for sabbaticals (even though they could probably trump up a scholarly project to meet the requirement) and therefore effectively voluntarily teach more classes than scholars. Moreover, there are dozens of examples of non-scholars voluntarily assuming larger administrative loads, in part because they recognize their lack of recognition for scholarship and get more satisfaction in the administrative side. None of this is rare at all.

Of course, this isn't to say there aren't bad citizens. It's just that there are some face-saving ways in which people internalize the cost of their failure to produce elsewhere.

3/18/2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Dear Anon 2: Yes, there are people who rise above it. I wish I could give them a metal. They make other people nervous and sometimes their efforts to do more are even declined. At my school a guy volunteered to teach a short summer course that someone else dropped out of for free. He never heard about it again. In another someone volunteered to divide a large section into two parts but was ingored.

But, sadly, even your response suggests how are things are tilted. The assumption is the someone legitimately has capped a course and then does something heroic by letting students in. That is but a small concession but it would have to be widespread to make a dent. And, as you suggest, it is hardly an effort to internalize one's externalities. People do pass on sabbaticals. They tend to be the same people every year and it is not correlated with low production. But your analysis suggests that everyone has earned a sabbatical that gets one and it is a heroic act to decline. Your examples begin with an assumption of initial entitlements that may have no justification in terms of service to the stakeholders. The extra administrative duty is one that worries me because we do not need $160,000 law professors doing much of what happens administratively. They are far more productive in the classroom.

3/18/2007 9:20 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

P.S. Ms. Anon. I assume you are from my own school and I'd be happy to be very specific about Florida's externalities but I know we do not like to get into the facts. It is not collegial after all. My comments in this post, however, are not centered on Florida.

3/18/2007 9:26 AM  

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