Sunday, June 01, 2008

Anna Karenina and the art of academic management

Kramskoi, Unknown Woman
Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (Иван Николаевич Крамской), Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1883)
Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.

— Лев Николаевич Толстой, Анна Каренина (1877)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Jared Diamond's masterpiece, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand human history on the only scale that matters, all of it. Among other fantastic insights, Guns, Germs, and Steel devotes its ninth chapter to what Diamond calls the Anna Karenina principle. That principle applies the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s novel to a wide variety of settings besides marriage and family:
Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.

This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate possible causes of failure.
As I will illustrate in the sidebar (if only for fans of Jurisdynamics, BioLaw, and Agricultural Law), Diamond originally applied the Anna Karenina principle to the problem of domesticating wild animals. For readers of MoneyLaw, the question is how the Anna Karenina principle applies to academic management — an enterprise that, upon further inspection, very closely resembles the problem of domesticating animals.

Click the zebras to read all about it.


Domesticate the zebra? Don't be an ass! Many have tried; all have failed.

Jared Diamond's application of the Anna Karenina principle to agriculture explains why so few wild animals have been successfully domesticated throughout history. A deficiency in any one of multiple factors can prevent the domestication of a species:

Diet — A species must be easy to feed. Finicky eaters make poor candidates. Non-finicky omnivores make the best candidates.

Growth rate — The animal must grow fast enough to make domestication economically feasible. An elephant farmer, for example, would wait 12 years for his herd to reach adulthood.

Captive breeding — The species must breed well in captivity. Species whose mating rituals (such as a need for privacy or protracted chases) inhibit breeding on a farm make poor candidates.

Nasty disposition — Some species are simply too mean. The farmer must not risk life or limb simply by entering the animal pen.

Tendency to panic — Species react to danger in different ways. A species that takes immediate flight is a poor candidate. A species that freezes, or mingles with the herd for cover, is a good candidate.

Social structure — Species comprised of lone, independent individuals make poor candidates. A species that has a strong, well defined social hierarchy is more likely to be domesticated. A species that can imprint on a human as the head of that hierarchy is best.
All happy law schools are alike; every unhappy law school is unhappy in its own way.

There are no fewer than seven distinct constituencies in most law schools. If any one of these constituencies behaves dysfunctionally, the entire school will reflect that dysfunction.

First, university administration must treat the law school as a vital part of the university as a whole. If it treats the law school as a cash cow or ignores it in favor of other initiatives — such as undergraduate education, other professional programs, or athletics — such favoritism will backfire. We're all on the same team, if not the same campus, and success breeds success.

Second, the dean must keep her or his eyes on the right prize: the well-being of the students and graduates of the law school. Acting as "the servant of the faculty" is a guaranteed formula for failure. So is managing from a position of diffidence, as if retaining the deanship took precedence over doing the right thing.

Third, the faculty must be committed to the right values. Law school teaching is the easiest, most rewarding, perhaps even the best job available to intellectually inclined people holding J.D. degrees. And the vast majority of people doing this job get to do it for life. So teach conscientiously, keep up with the law and allied fields through active scholarship, and above all do not treat a faculty appointment as either a sinecure or a personal expense account.

Fourth, staff should work as a cohesive, professional crew. Nonfaculty employees almost invariably do. But law school administration and faculty must take care to treat staff with respect, and there must be some sort of constructive mechanism for correcting instances when this aspiration is not fulfilled.

Fifth, students arguably have the easiest role in ensuring their law school's success. In most cases, doing what comes naturally consists simply of studying hard, playing fair, passing the bar, and getting jobs. But it does help if the students actually want to be at the school they're attending. Schools that are destinations of choice for their students tend to be happy. Schools that are fallback destinations tend to be less happy. Don't confuse this with rankings: a gaudy ranking is neither necessary nor sufficient for student satisfaction.

TrainSixth, alumnae and alumni should not treat their alma mater as though a law school education rested on some sort of fee-for-service contract. Ideally the relationship between a school and its graduates spans a lifetime. Too young and poor to give cash? We'll take in-kind contributions, even moral support. Even if your own experience was awful, smart leadership today will work with you to make tomorrow's graduates more appreciative of their degrees — and yours.

Finally, the local community must take a stake in the well-being of the law school. Members of the local bar, no matter where they got their degrees, benefit from a robust local law school. Public schools depend on enlightened state legislatures who understand that investments in education pay multiple dividends in the form of future economic development.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Anna Karenina principle suggests that historians have it right when it comes to explaining successful outcomes whereas social scientists who engage in reductionist explanations (e.g., rational choice) have it wrong. It also suggests that traditional legal scholarship has it wrong as well as it reduces the social world to what goes on inside cases. Miguel

6/02/2008 12:09 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

You make excellent points regarding what different law school constituencies need to do. But how do we find the proper incentive to motivate some of these constituencies (like faculty) to act in the most positive manner?

6/03/2008 8:18 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home