Friday, February 15, 2008

Julius Caesar was wrong: A two-act post

Julius Caesar
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act I, sc. 2
Act I

The historic Julius Caesar was star-crossed; he died one week short of the vernal equinox and one civil war short of full-blown, de jure empire. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, as the Spin Doctors recognized, was even unluckier: "they killed his ass in the second act."

And now that I have spent a decade and a half in the legal academy, I understand why Cassius, Brutus, and their fellow conspirators felt the urge. With his preference for fat, lazy colleagues, Caesar would have made a lousy dean or appointments committee chair. Like those who loved the Roman Republic, anyone who cares about the real purpose of law school — teaching students statutes and laws and showing them the way in which they must walk and the work that they must do — would also feel the rage. Fall, Caesar!

An academic appointment, in most circumstances, is a promise of lifetime employment. Get it wrong, and you will have an odious colleague for life. Though no evaluative process is perfect, MoneyLaw exhorts its readers to embrace better indicators of productivity and moral character. Past performance is no guarantee of future performance, but it is a better guarantee than anything else, and orders of magnitude better than pedigree.

Assembly lineAll that is familiar ground to readers of this forum. I tread upon it again in order to spotlight what I believe is novel turf. As between two would-be colleagues, one who has sweated for pay and another who has always paid for the privilege of sweating, I will choose the veteran of the hourly paycheck. Ceteris paribus, I want colleagues who have had to lift, grind, wait, wash, stock, and/or salute for a living. A history of workplace-related repetitive stress injury is not necessary, but I will treat it as a bonus:
Let me have folks about me who are lean;
Hardworking folk and such as sweat all night:
Yond colleague has a fat and sated look;
He sits too much: such men are despicable.
Or to put it even more coarsely:
The fault, dear Julius, lies not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are lardbottoms

Act II

My preference for colleagues who have experienced hard labor, in its most grueling sense, is just that: a preference. Taken to a higher level, however, the instinct underlying this preference informs a more finely tuned and sharply stated principle:
Understand how lucky you are to have this job, or I will kick your ass.
In a world where most people go to bed hungry and wake up uncertain that their children will survive them, in a country no longer able to lift its wage workers into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, such jobs as we hold in higher education are privileged beyond description. We are not worthy of such good fortune, but only say the word, and we shall be blessed. Conversely, none is as malignant, and none deserves as thoroughly the collective damnation that the rest of us and any sympathetic deity can muster, as a tenured professor who treats the academy as an entitlement, a personal expense account, a temple to his unearned, undeserved arrogance.

CenturionI now make this solemn vow. For all the days that I am privileged to work in legal academia, in whatever position I might hold at any time, I shall devote every fiber of my being to resisting, defeating, and ultimately destroying those who forget that the academy exists not to serve them, but those who pay the tuition and the taxes that sustain our temples of learning. So help me God.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"An academic appointment, in most circumstances, is a promise of lifetime employment. Get it wrong, and you will have an odious colleague for life."

This doesn't have to be the case, though, and isn't in most academic disciplines. Why should it be in law? That's really a mystery. Compare Harvard College, where less than 1/4 of jr. professors get tenure (almost certainly too few) with Harvard Law where nearly all (almost certainly too many) did, at least when junior hires were still common. But surely there's no _good_ reason for that. So why not try to make a more meaningful tenure review? It would make hiring less high-stakes and would make for a leaner, better faculty. Given that everywhere _but_ law schools seem to do this it's surely possible, and probably easier than figuring out potential.

2/16/2008 12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Matt, one thing that's hard not to notice: the law profs who are denied tenure are disproportionately women and/or people of color. You seem to be resident at Penn Law, so it's something you should already be aware of. Ask someone to give you a list of the folks denied tenure at Penn over the past 30 years.

2/16/2008 10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the time that I've been around Penn (7 years now) only one person at the law school was turned down for tenure. That might be because they are so good at hiring but it's also clear that some given tenure wouldn't have gotten it in the college with comparable amounts of work. Which side is in error I'm not certain to say. The one person denied did seem to have a lot published and my understanding is that a personality dispute was involved though he's bounced back quite nicely. In the other department I know something about (philosophy) men and women have been turned down at roughly the same (very high) rate and in a way that compares quite nicely with their work. And, of course, measures to fight these (surely real) problems can be put in place- stopping the tenure clock for a year when there is a birth, for example, or relying heavily on a diverse group of outside referees. It's not perfect but then, the present system isn't either. My only point was that the claim that an initial hire is usually a promise of lifetime employment is a pathology particular to law schools, certainly not a necessary one, and one that might be good for a dean who wants to shake things up to take target at.

2/16/2008 12:32 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Jim: Terrific post. I think Matt asks a good question. Why is it that law schools seem unable to make the hard choices that other disciplines make. I have written about this and I think that law teaching in particular is characterized by a unique combination of factors that permit shirking and self-dealing.

But, here is a question for you Jim. You are the only dean I have known who states his values clearly and states whose side he is on. When you go to meetings with other deans do you meet any others who are willing to state specific -- I mean specific not blah blah -- values and say what their goals are and whose side they are on?

2/16/2008 12:57 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Jim: I am happy to take the pledge but I am sure you understand that the opposition is formitable.

2/16/2008 4:55 PM  

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