Saturday, October 25, 2008

Profs playing poker

Dogs playing poker
In academic life, nothing is certain except death, taxes, and strategic voting on faculty appointments. The emergence of a strong candidate poses a serious dilemma for incumbent faculty members who approach prospective appointments with a strictly selfish agenda of maximizing private utility. Having smart colleagues enhances the faculty's overall reputation. But introducing a smart colleague also threatens to disturb the faculty's existing pecking order. Payouts from enhanced reputation are shared and diffuse. By contrast, selfish professors perceive significant losses from their (probably exaggerated) fears of diminished relative status within the faculty. As a result, this sort of self-interest often counsels suspicion, publicly expressed doubts, and eventually a negative vote on an otherwise deserving appointments candidate.

In her description of an idealized research scientist, whose "preference satisfaction requires that there be a vibrant research community in which she can participate," Katherine Strandburg provides a vivid metaphor that aptly describes the inherent tension in strategic voting on faculty appointments:

[T]he [academic] community is somewhat analogous to a poker club. People join the club because they enjoy a good game of poker. They want to win because the resulting take will provide the stakes for their participation in the next round, but winning everything will end the game. Moreover, when the question of admitting new members to the club arises, the players have mixed motives — admitting less competent players increases the present members’ chances of winning, but undermines the quality of the game, making it less enjoyable for the members both collectively and individually.
Curiosity-Driven Research and University Technology Transfer, 16 Advances in the Study of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Economic Growth 97 (2005), reprinted in University Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer: Process, Design, and Intellectual Property 93, 101 (Gary D. Libecap ed., 2008).

Selfishly strategic voting damages academic values in general and the well-being of the affected faculty in particular. As Brett Dennen would say:

There ain’t no reason things are this way
It's how they always been and they intend to stay
I can't explain why we live this way
We do it everyday.

The public-regarding members of a faculty face a remedial task that is much more easily proclaimed than performed: change the terms of the game of academic poker so that this sort of strategic voting yields lower private payouts. The size of the pot — perhaps even the poker game itself — hangs in the balance.


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

I will make this less windy than my normal comments. Assuming the poker analogy holds for the original analysis, do you really think that the social market for basic science funding closely resembles the social market for peer faculty appointments at law schools?

I bet some feel threatened by a loss of status, or jealous of another's success, just as in any organization. But if one were grading environments on an "eat what you kill" scale, coupled with sharp tradeoffs among successful predators, it'd be hard to come up with too many environments ranking lower than a law school -- including in its appointments process.

(By the way, if you want to make it worse in this regard, just increase the tie between compensation and performance -- and watch as the suspicion of quality researchers, or acclaimed teachers, or esteemed community citizens, grows.)

10/26/2008 9:45 PM  

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