Sunday, March 08, 2009

Breaking away

It's the thirtieth anniversary of one of my all-time favorite movies, Breaking Away. As this musical tribute suggests, it's an extremely sentimental movie about growing up, intergenerational conflict, class warfare, and an underdog who (in the parlance of European pop music) ultimately gets everything but the girl — and doesn't crash and burn over that outcome. F. Scott Fitzgerald, eat your heart out. Even though I now run the asylum after having served several unhappy sentences in American higher education, and even though the pickup line par excellence has shifted from Posso ofrirti qualcosa da bere, signorina? to Σ'αγαπώ πολύ, κορίτσι μού, I still love Breaking Away. Always did, always will.

Breaking Away also unlocks a puzzle that has long tormented MoneyLaw: how do we know we're winning? Dave Hoffman recently touched this nerve in his response to my post on Shane Battier:
The problem with the Moneylaw approach to faculty rewards is that it has failed to fully define what universities are designed to maximize. That's not an easy question to answer, obviously, and I don't think there's just one approach. For a few law schools, like Florida-Coastal, that answer is obvious: to make money. For others, law school's function as a profit center within a larger university umbrella. . . . But for most law schools, the ultimate criterion of faculty success is just unclear. Giving students a return on their investment is much of it, but it's not the whole story, since tuition doesn't pay nearly all the bills. We've responsibilities to alumni donors, to the State, to the Bar, etc. Shane Battier just needs to help his team win games. We don't know what winning is. We don't know what game we're playing. And who's our team again?
It truly is wonderful when you realize that the movement you need is already on your shoulder. The answer to Dave Hoffman's challenge, and to MoneyLaw's conundrum, lies in this classic scene from Breaking Away:

Read the rest of this post . . . .

In a MoneyLaw world, law schools win if their students — at graduation, five years out, whenever — don't ask for a refund. Here's the thought experiment that explains what I mean: Imagine that every law student, upon matriculation, gets a magic button. At any moment, before and after graduation, if a student wishes that she or he had done anything but go to law school, that student can mash the magic button and thereby get a refund. Of course, the legal education and everything it confers — the degree, the subsequent bar passage (if any), the eventual career (again, if any) — will vaporize in that instant.

For every student who would elect this option, MoneyLaw regards this choice as a devastating loss for the school in question. This is what it means to "win" in higher education: running your school so that your students and graduates never regret having set foot on your campus.

In concrete, operational terms, this means that specific law school policies (and corresponding MoneyLaw metrics) are valid to the extent that they advance the ultimate goal of lifelong alumni satisfaction. From this point of view, U.S. News rankings, SSRN downloads, Westlaw hits, and subjective evaluations of law porn all fall short of the gauges of satisfaction in the Law School Survey of Student Engagement. And a MoneyLaw dean would do well to track how effectively she or he is persuading graduates to remain involved, on terms akin to those of the baseball concept of value over replacement player, or VORP.

And with that, I need to sign off so that I can head out for alumni meetings along the Eastern seaboard. Arrivederci amici.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the idea here that faculty activity that doesn't increase student (alumni?) satisfaction ought to be viewed with skepticism? What role does the production of knowledge about law (a treatise, for example) have in this story? It would seem to be a very attenuated one.

3/08/2009 9:41 PM  

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