Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Community?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a survey about law school communities. As usual the number of voters was low and for all I know they were all from the same school. There were two questions. One asked voters to rate the strength of their law school community and other asked what they would prefer as far as strength of community. By community I meant the tendency of people to pitch in and share responsibilities for the benefit of the whole as opposed to angling for the lowest teaching load, and the most individual credit.

If the numbers mean anything, and since this is a blog we can pretend that they do, most people would like to work in an environment in which the sense of community is strong and at their own law schools it is not strong. If the results are representative, what is suggests is free-riding. That is, faculty would like to be community minded if they thought others would reciprocate. So here we are back at one of my recurring themes. The huge commons experiment that law schools represent is revealing the worse about human nature.

My little survey does not amount to much but there is much better evidence of sufficient faculty shirking, free riding, and externality production to spoil the commons. At my Law School we recently received a memo announcing a movement to a partial "pay when and if you write it" approach to summer research grants. The memo noted that in a survey of 120 law schools about 2/3 had adopted such a policy. As I noted a few blogs ago, this indicates to me that a system based on a sense of community has failed miserably at those schools as it evidently has at mine. Think of this way, at those schools a decision was made that paying in advance of article production was too risky. That is, faculty could not be trusted to repay the loan with scholarship.

Where do the externalities come in? Once again law school policy is determined by the shirkers and advantage takers. I assume that at my law school and most others the majority of faculty are willing to write and teach their fair share but as soon as a significant minority begins to free ride the rest add to their own work loads. The requirement for formal rules is a dead on indicator of a failure to develop and observe community norms. And let's face it, most deans prefer to make broad announcements rather than tangle with the individual defaulters. (What explains this tendency.)

This leaves me with some questions. Was law teaching always like this? Do the shirkers and free riders dictate the rules for all? What do you ask entry level applicants in order to weed out the potential free riders. Are they the ones who write in the margins on the FAR form? Are they the ones who exaggerate just a tad? In the interview are they the name droppers? A real recruiting break through would be the development of a basic faculty ethics test. Of course, the advantage takers would figure out how to game that too.


Anonymous Rick Bales said...

This may sound flippant, but in my experience, it's absolutely true: you can tell a lot about the strength of a faculty's sense of "community" by the state of its communal kitchen/refrigerator.

7/11/2007 2:13 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

It does not sound flippant at all. No reason the externalities should be limited to professional activities. I suppose the maid is supposed to tidy up.

7/11/2007 9:22 PM  

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