Category: Education


Taking a Bit of My Own Advice About Failing Well

I happened to see two quotes yesterday that seemed apropos to the subject of success and failure, which has caught my attention over the last couple days. The first comes from Winston Churchill: “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” The second is attributed to Henry James: “No man like to have his intelligence or good faith questioned, especially if he has doubts about it himself.”

It’s appointments season, so considerations of success and failure smack you in the face whether you like it or not. If my reaction is at all typical, you have to wonder, in the abundance of talent seeking jobs in the legal academy, how you yourself ever got hired. (Well, I am sure there are a few people out there who don’t have to wonder.) In the midst of a hiring season induced bout of impostor syndrome, I received a rejection e-mail from a peer-reviewed journal on a piece I had submitted six months ago. It’s pretty clear it was rejected at the editor level, not after being sent out for review (my experience from having had rejected a book manuscript that richly deserved to be rejected is that if the latter, you see the reviews). So I am here thinking out loud about taking my own advice, liberally offered to others, about failing well.

1. It’s not bad to fail ambitiously. I was attempting a difficult placement, and it was something of a flier when I started it. With six months reflection, I see my own weaknesses better (too many thoughts crammed into too little space; not enough accommodation to the concrete versus the abstract, hesitation about my own voice, etc., etc.).

2. Like Winston Churchill, I don’t mind learning, but I don’t always like being taught. What I think is more accurate in my case is that I don’t mind learning, I don’t even mind being taught (by a kind teacher), but I really don’t relish the prospect of being taught or criticized, which is always far worse in the anticipation than in the doing. And that, I think, is because of a slight variation on Henry James’ offering, which is that we Type-A, hyper-competitive, perfectionist, impostor-syndrome-affected sorts don’t like to anticipate our intelligence being questioned (which it rarely is!), especially when we have doubts about it ourselves.

3. It’s probably a bit of jargon, but in my prior life I always liked the idea of a learning organization as corporate model. It’s really, really tough to do, because it’s idealistic and aspirational, and the realities always come back to undermine it. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful enough concept that GE installed Steve Kerr as its Chief Learning Officer a number of years ago (he since moved on to Goldman Sachs doing the same thing). Learning in this context is more than being educated. This is from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which attracted quite a following. The idea is “personal mastery,” the kind of self-view we’d expect both from leaders and those led in a learning organization:

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward’.

The great irony here, of course, is that schools are not necessarily learning organizations, particularly for faculty, but that’s a subject for another time and another place. Suffice it to say that in a learning organization we would talk about the relationship between failing ambitiously and succeeding cautiously.

Larson on Legacy Preferences as Titles of Nobility

ballcrown320.jpgCarlton Larson’s article on the “Unconstitutionality of Legacy Preferences in Public School Admissions” is provocative, persuasive, and beautifully written. I read its seamless synthesis of legal history and constitutional advocacy at one sitting, and I think anyone interested in egalitarian thought would do well to consult it. As its precis states,

[The Article] sets forth a framework for building a modern jurisprudence under the Nobility Clauses and concludes that legacy preferences are blatantly inconsistent with the Constitution’s prohibition on hereditary privilege. Indeed, the closest analogues to such preferences in American law are the notorious “grandfather clauses” of the Jim Crow South, under which access to the ballot was predicated upon the status of one’s ancestors. The Article considers a variety of counterarguments supporting the practice of legacy preferences and concludes that none of them are sufficient to surmount the Nobility Clauses’ prohibition of hereditary privilege.

Larson’s piece is also impeccably timed, as controversy over admissions to elite universities heats up. Justice Talking featured a series of speakers on college admissions on last week’s podcast. As book after book reveals inequities in the system, apologists for privilege are mounting a counterattack. Larson’s article reminds us of what is at stake–no less than the egalitarian values at the core of the American Revolution’s rejection of British aristocracy.

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Corporate College Presidents and Super-Sized Endowments

Yesterday The New York Times had two articles that left me thinking about university endowments. One discussed the increased Congressional pressure on charitable institutions to spend down their endowments; the other noted the soaring salaries of college presidents. Combined, the articles highlight the need to challenge conventional thinking about what constitutes a strong endowment.

The Times reports that in the last 10 years, the amount of assets held by non-profits has nearly doubled, to $2.5 trillion by the end of 2005. Educational institutions held almost $600 billion. (If nothing else, employees deciding whether to enroll in TIAA-CREF should take note of what compounding interest and tax-free gains can yield!) Private foundations are required to spend 5% of their assets each year; educational institutions are not subject to even this minimal requirement.

Grinnell College, with 1500 students and an endowment of over $1 billion, was highlighted in the Times article. Russell Osgood, Grinnell’s president, points out that Grinnell gave about $1 million more in financial aid than it received in revenue from tuition and fees. He also says,“We’re here to ensure the long-term health and function of Grinnell College. That’s our sole objective.” But the Times does not quote Osgood as explaining why more than $1 billion is necessary to protect a small liberal arts college against an economic downturn. Rather, Osgood says:

Society at large benefits from those monies being invested in our economy. . . . The United States has a problem with its rate of savings, and one of the few bright spots are colleges and universities, which are two of the largest contributors to the national rate of savings. Anyone thinking about reducing endowments should think long and hard about what that might do to the overall ability to generate jobs and fund good ideas.

Maybe, although no-one is suggesting that universities empty their coffers. And the national savings rate is what not alumni were thinking about when they wrote checks to their alma mater, or what Congress was considering when it extended favorable tax treatment to educational institutions and their donors.

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Did you ever notice that law school hiring seems to aim for not-all-that-diverse diversity? It reminds me of a friend who claims to love Thai food and then orders everything “extra mild.” Does he like Thai food (as in embrace it) or does he simply embrace the idea of liking Thai food? It’s like the question I often ask my classes: Can you have a preference for a preference?

How is this like faculty hiring for diversity? My, admittedly unofficial, view is that when hiring committees look for candidates the pecking order is like this:

White elite eduated male

White elite ed. female

African American ed. elite male

African Americna ed. elite female

White non elite female

White non elite male

African American non elite female

African American non elite female

The ranking is, no surprise, consistent with social comfort and, let’s face it, given that there is no evidence that one group is better at law teaching than another and that law professors can “interpret” resumes to mean anything, social comfort plays a big role.

So, do law professors on average like the idea of embracing diversity or do they really embrace diversity? I think it’s the former and it’s not even close. They have a preference for a preference for diversity but the real preference is just not there.

So how would you recruit for actually diversity? No question in my mind that race is a big factor but how about these questions:

1. What was your father or mother’s occupation?

2. How much school did your father and mother complete?

3. How much student debt have you accumulated?

4. How many people do you know at an Ivy League school?

5. Ever worked at McDonalds, washed cars, or bagged groceries?

6. Anyone in your family on welfare.

7. Has anyone in your family done time?

8. Ever been out of the US?

9. What is the difference between rigatoni and zitti? (oops, sorry this one accidently came over from a completely different list)

When and if law faculties get serious about diversity, let me know.


Announcing Deanship Opening

We are seeking applicants for the position of Dean. The applicants should have some administrative experience although a prior deanship is not required. Some but not exceptional scholarly productivity is a requirement. Among the attributes that will be examined is the ability to work well with others. More specifically:

1. The dean should generally say yes to all faculty requests no matter how absurd.

2. The dean should not ask faculty to fill holes in the curriculum on a temporary basis.

3. The dean should make use of liberal summer research grants without expecting immediate – or any – results.

4. The dean should prepare massive glossy publications publicizing the scholarship of the faculty in lieu of actually requiring the production of scholarship.

5. Classes should not be scheduled on Monday or Friday or any day before 10:00 AM.

6. The deans should avoid controversy by shifting difficult issues to faculty committees, ignoring issues in hopes they will go away, or by redefining the issue

7. The dean should listen to no one except those on the faculty who he or she believes could influence the future of his or her deanship.

8. The dean should first and always think about the welfare of the faculty over that of the students.

The Search Committee is aware that there are many highly qualified decanal candidates and ask that interested applicants submit their resumes as soon as possible.


Law School Capture

My blogging schitk is grousing about legal education. I do this mainly on moneylaw and classsbias and serve as a technical advisor to privilegelaw – a blog that must be read starting earlier and moving to more recent. In many respects I think legal education has been captured by and run for the convenience of faculty who are far more often than not the children of privilege. (If you are already preparing to comment, I ask that you skip it if the comment is about a law professor who is not a child of privilege.) As I blog along this month these themes will become more developed. First, here is a test to examine your own school for its level of capture.

Before taking the test there are some clarifications. There is good and bad capture. I can imagine a law school captured by the faculty and, with or without help from the administration, run for the benefit of stakeholders. This would be faculty that is constantly asking “What should we be doing”? and matching it against what it is doing. On the other hand, capture can mean that a faculty runs the law school for its convenience with only modest limitations imposed by others and even here observing the limits are part of a pattern of self-interested behavior.

Second, from time to time I get an email that carries with it the assumption that all my grousing is about my own School. Wrong! The examples are not all taken from my School, and if you really called my bluff I would not bet that my school is any different than the average. So how does your school stack up on the capture quiz: (you can give your school partial points)

1. Are classes scheduled mid week and mid day even though it means conflicts that limit student choices? (1 point for a yes.)

2. Has you school seriously reviewed any of its foreign programs, centers, institutes or degree programs in the past two years? (1 point for a no.)

3. Does your school depend on adjuncts to teach mainline courses while offering small enrollment specialized courses taught by full time profs? (1 point for a yes)

4. Does your school have a high curve that is sometimes defended by not wanting to hurt the feelings of the students or other justifications that amount to “I do not want to actually have to evaluate someone?” (1 point for a yes)

5. Do colleagues propose programs that are needed even though they will not actually be teaching, traveling, or receiving a reduced teaching load if the program is adopted? (1 point for a no)

6. Can students graduate and take half or more of their classes on a pass/fail basis. (See question 4) (1 point for a yes)

7. Does your school encourage massive, barely supervised, externships that generate tuition dollars, provide free labor and, by the way, mean less teaching ? (1 point for a yes).

8. Does your administration mass mail glossy reports listing every conceivable thing faculty submit as reportable? (1 point for a yes).

9. Does your dean appear to be afraid to suggest that the School should do better and then hold people accountable? (1 point for a yes)

10. Is the norm that just about everyone is gone by 11 AM on Friday? (1 point for a yes)

If you scored a 10, it’s best to go into receivership and start from scratch.

If you are in the 7-9 range you will probably be a 10 soon.

If you are 4-6, I think you are average and a few hires could move you either way.

If you are 3 or less, congratulations.


Shunning Duke’s Faculty

listening_statement_p.jpgA little while back, former Judge, and law school Dean, Joseph Bellacosa (St. John’s) proposed that members of the public shun the 88 Duke faculty members who sponsored an advertisement in the early days of the Nifong investigation implicitly condemning the accused lacrosse players. Bellacosa argued that

[A]lthough the group [of faculty members] can’t technically be charged with crimes – though abandoning your young and endangering youth sure do come close to real definable crimes – there are ways these professors can be held accountable. The identities of the 88 professors should be posted in significant ways and places, including in the media and on the Internet, so that they may be known for what they have done.

The likely howls of protest from the tenure police, university guild apologists and free-speech absolutists notwithstanding, the professoriat should not be shielded from appropriate public condemnation for their misconduct. Their dormant consciences and sensibilities should be reawakened to the abhorrent nature of the actions they inflicted on their own students.

I am regrettably late commenting on Judge Bellacosa’s article, and so this post may be stale. But still. What the heck is going on here?

Finding the original ad put up in 2006 isn’t so easy. A follow-up statement by Concerned Duke Faculty member has dead links, and Duke’s African-American studies department has removed the page from its server. Fortunately, this blog post pdf’d the ad, which I’ve copied to the right. Unfortunately, Bellacosa doesn’t say, and I don’t understand, exactly what was so wrong about this statement. There are some rumors that the students whose voices are being spotlighted are composites. That would be bad, but not a deadly sin. And the heart of the ad – the statement by the professors themselves – seems to me to consist of a set of vague generalities that verge on truisms, and aren’t objectionable:

“Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday.”

Regardless, we’re supposed to shame and shun the signatories to the ad. Why?

Three Views of Education as an Associative Good

The Posner-Becker blog had a good discussion of education rankings 2 months ago. I was particularly struck by Posner’s observations on the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of rankings:

The effect of college ranking on the education industry is unclear, but my guess is that it is negative. . . .Given the high costs of actually evaluating colleges, employers and even the admissions committees of professional and graduate schools are likely to give weight to a school’s rank, and this will give applicants an incentive to apply to the highest-ranking school that they have a chance of being admitted to (if they can afford it). The result will be to increase the school’s rank, because SAT scores and other measures of the quality of admitted students are an important factor in a college’s ranking. That increase in turn will attract still better applicants, which may result in a further boost in the school’s rank. The result may be that a school will attract a quality of student, and attain a rank, that is disproportionate to the quality of its teaching program.

Henry Hansmann wrote an interesting piece on this phenomenon, calling education an “associative good,” since, “when choosing which producer to patronize, a consumer is interested not just in the quality and price of the firm’s products, but also in the personal characteristics of the firm’s other customers” (emphasis added). Hansmann concludes by wondering if “the increasing technological sophistication of our society, which is fueling the trend toward stratification among the elite educational institutions, will someday produce technologies that make it less important for elite higher education to be a residential experience, and hence remove much of the associative character of higher education.” Franklin Snyder offers evidence that blogging is one such technology.

But don’t underestimate dominant interests’ passion for rankings, cautions McKenzie Wark (whose bookpage for the source I’m quoting interestingly fails to mention it was published by Harvard University Press). He claims that “Education is organized as a prestige market, in which a few scarce qualifications provide entree to the highest paid work, and everything else arranges itself in a pyramid of prestige and price below. Scarcity infects the subject with desire for education as a thing that confers a magic ability to gain a ‘salary’ with which to acquire still more things.” In other words, the rankings are the purest form of artificial scarcity. . . . a precious commodity in an era when the diminishing scarcity of resources that meet basic needs limits their contribution to economic growth. Wark worries that education will “split[] into a minimal system meant to teach servility to the poorest workers and a competitive system offering the brighter workers a way up the slippery slope to security and consumption.”

I’ll expressly disclaim endorsement of any of these three theories. I just find it interesting how the staid and sober observations of a Posner can resonate with Wark’s radical theory, once we interpose the “associative goods” concept.


Greetings, Salutations, and Current Events Questions on Exams

Greetings, everyone, and thanks to Dan, Dave, and the rest of the Concur-ers for the invite to spend some time guesting over here (and for the warm introduction). I guess, if nothing else, my guest stint will provide some anecdotal data about just how many blog-readers read both Concurring Opinions and PrawfsBlawg, my permanent home…

Anyway, I thought I’d start with a practical question: Whether, and to what extent, folks think that is a good idea to put current-events-based questions on a final exam? Borrowing (shamelessly) from my soon-to-be-former colleague Michael Froomkin, my con law final exam included a Morrison v. Olson-based question about the Office of the Special Counsel (for details on the issue, see Michael’s posts here and especially here).

Leaving aside the merits of this particular question, it strikes me that we as profs have a temptation to write current events-based questions, both because reading the news triggers our own intellectual curiosity, and because it’s a way to keep the substance “fresh” from year-to-year. But are there reasons not to? I consider a couple below the fold:

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