Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What Concurring Opinions gets wrong about MoneyLaw

Deadwood: It isn't so much about the place as it is about the cast of characters.

Dave Hoffman of Concurring Opinions asserts: "The Moneylaw movement is decidedly anti-tenure." Jeff Harrison has his own view, of course, but I come neither to praise nor to bury tenure. The institution of academic tenure is here to stay, and not even MoneyLaw's most dedicated partisans are so foolhardy as to abort their careers by touching academia's third rail. Besides, if I've learned anything in this business, it is this truth: One's ability to accomplish things and to effect genuine change is inversely related to the extent to which one speaks one's mind.

J. Bruce Ismay
J. Bruce Ismay, chairman and director of the White Star Line, survived the sinking of the Titanic. An outraged William Randolph Hearst wrote, "We respectfully suggest that the emblem of the White Star be changed to that of a yellow liver."
So, if you're expecting me, as an early adopter of the "MoneyLaw movement" — seriously, has anyone ever written more flattering words about this blog, especially in the course of trashing one of its premises? — to condemn tenure, you'll have to wait a long time, and in vain. I'll also decline the temptation to quarrel with Dave Hoffman on sabermetric and bibliometric matters, except to observe in passing that Role Models in Finance: Lessons from Life Cycle Productivity of Prolific Scholars focuses on the effect of tenure on highly prolific "role model[]" finance scholars, as distinct from "the average finance Ph.D." Jeff Harrison, effectively and consistently, has exposed deep veins of timidity in the academy. And I have already exhorted fellow professors to write boldly, on the understanding that cowardice is a profound vice. As a result, I have neither occasion nor inclination to contest the notion that tenure protects academic freedom and inspires innovative teaching and scholarship.

But bold and honest talk about tenure should focus on two drawbacks that even the most ardent defenders of the institution would be hard pressed to deny:
  1. Far worse than tenure's marginal propensity, if any, to encourage loafing and to shelter unproductive faculty members from real accountability is its elimination of meaningful sanctions against odiously selfish, institutionally destructive faculty members. All it takes is one rabid rodent to infect the entire horde.

    For a sense of the intensity with which MoneyLaw has addressed this issue, consider this: The German word Arschloch and its plural form, Arschlöcher, have appeared no fewer than 12 times in previous MoneyLaw posts. In academia's eternal morality play, where character matters far more than talent, the negative impact of Arschlochkeit (the condition of being an Arschloch) far outweighs any adverse productivity effects attributable to tenure.

  2. Except perhaps at Yale and other schools where as many as one out of twelve graduates is a law professor, tenure insidiously separates professors from a realistic appreciation of their students' professional futures. At Louisville, the admittedly small base of 6,000 alumni might have a half-dozen members who work as law professors or federal judges. Literally 99.9 percent of our alumni are working without the benefit of a form of lifelong job protection that law professors rarely if ever subject to serious scrutiny. If we intend seriously as legal academics to serve our students and our graduates, it behooves us to focus on the professional conditions that they will face.
And that, in short, is what Concurring Opinions gets wrong about MoneyLaw and this movement's attitude toward tenure.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Love the gopher. I have looked at the Concurring opinions post and it seems odd to me that the best defense of tenure seems to be that "it is not as bad as you think." What seems to be missed is the huge opportunity cost of tenure. Each tenure professor means a life time of not hiring someone else or at least not having the choice. I am not anti tenure, just anti those who abuse it.

7/22/2008 8:06 AM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Tried to post this, but it doesn't seem to be working . . .

I agree that the other blog doesn't quite capture the sentiment here, and doesn't really defend tenure adequately. But a couple of points:

1. The post says that the real concern isn't with the unproductive, but with Arschlöcher. That concern has indeed been emphasized, though it's hard to appreciate how horrible these are or how widespread the phenomenon is. (Despite the worst person in the world stuff.) Surprisingly, this is the kind of "good locker room guy" criterion that confounds MoneyBall, or maybe even is fodder for it if others pursue it. If one accepts tenure, and presupposes that it's at least kinda hard to do anything about people of this kind, is it easy to make hiring decisions on such a character-driven basis? If someone does, will smaller rivals succeed by emphasizing number of prior publications?

I instinctively sympathize with the bad apple concern, despite being unclear on its magnitude, but fear that it's far harder to deal with bad apples than with shirkers under any feasible relaxation of job security.

2. The point about the separation of professional conditions is an interesting and valid one, but marginal. The far more substantial separation regards opportunity: most law professors could easily have landed the best professional opportunities available to graduates of the schools at which they teach. Security is a far lesser consideration (in fact, I'm less confident that professors could retain their positions, or excel at them, than that they would get the best ones initially).

If you TRULY want closer identification, hiring should skew toward the best graduates of that very law school; hire Louisville grads at Louisville. I ultimately don't think one should go too far in that direction, because it's non-meritocratic (but see Jeff's posts) and inbred, but it would do far more than monkeying with tenure.

3. Jeff talks about opportunity cost, which I think is the right approach. But when he says, "What bright productive people are lost from the profession due to tenure?," consider this hunch: I'd be willing to bet that a very substantial proportion of the people who don't need tenure nevertheless find it an incredibly attractive part of the position, and that without it they would find private practice with its salaries and vicissitudes much more compelling.

4. Jeff says, "I am not anti tenure, just anti those who abuse it." Good position, but I don't know what it means in practical terms. Would he accept present standards for dismissal from tenure? Use the existing ones with greater vigor? Use other incentives? Or are we just left to complain?

Thanks for the interesting post and comment.

7/22/2008 11:32 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Since part of ani's comment is to me I will respond but not necessarily produce answers.

I think today's standards for maintaining tenure are meaningless. I would apply a system of periodic meaningful reviews and a reorientation of those falling short.

On the abuse question: Tenure is granted on the basis of a projection of future output. The standard for that projection is pre-tenure productivity. When a person's post-tenure production is significantly lower than pre-tenure (really, an implicit promise)for more than a year to two I would regard that as abuse since it is something other than than which would be acceptable in a non tenure context.

7/22/2008 2:49 PM  
Blogger Jeff Lipshaw said...

I think the merits of this discussion are interesting. I just object to the term "movement," particularly since I have blogged at both Concurring Opinions and MoneyLaw. I'm all in favor of metonymy (and synecdoche and Schenectady for that matter), but personally, I wouldn't want to join any movement that would have me as a member.

For definition of movement, see Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant.

7/22/2008 6:37 PM  

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