Friday, January 19, 2007

Privilege and Product Development

One of the advantages of being privileged is rarely being wrong. This plays out in law schools with respect to the “products” law professors offer or sell to students and others. The “products” are actually “programs” including student run publications, LLMs, certificate programs, centers, institutes, foreign programs, and probably some things I do know exist.

Car makers with massive market studies make mistakes with respect to their product lines. So do clothes designers, pharmaceutical manufactures and restaurants. I guess they should hire law professors who, with practically no market analysis, get it right every time. Of course there is another interpretation. In conventional markets, demanders and suppliers occupy different sides of the market. Law faculties tend to occupy both sides of the market – they supply the programs that they demand and are lucky enough to pay for what they demand with the money of others.

Consequently, my objections are not to the products per se but to the lack of care taken in establishing them and, far, far more importantly, the virtually impossibility of discontinuing them.

Let me give an example or two of how this plays out. One is about the life of a program. The other is about the difficulty of reexamination. At Florida we have a summer teaching program in France. It is also far from our worst (or best) program and I use it here as an example. The director (who goes every year) takes another professor and 20 or so students who respond to what seems to me to be a massive advertising campaign. The program was approved at a summer faculty meeting over ten years ago with 17 people in attendance. (Our faculty numbered over 50 at the time.)When a lack of a quorum was mentioned, the dean replied that everyone knew about the meeting and could have come if they cared. The meeting likely had been selected so supporters would outnumber detractors. They did, but barely. Years later the program still exists and, ironically, the current director was one of the principal detractors. The costs and benefits of the program and the quality of the program have never been seriously examined. The enrollment remains low and there are many other similar programs offered by other schools that our students could attend. In effect, it was established and continues to exist on a whim and it can hardly be something that elevates the School in any ranking or offers an opportunity to students that they could not get elsewhere.

On the inertia problem. A few years ago a former dean appointed a committee to review all of our programs and to make recommendations on whether any should be discontinued. Among those appointed to the program were some faculty with the most to lose if any serious changes were make and some faculty of the Making Nice, Knowing Better, Doing Nothing ilk. (I should add that instances in which others might think in terms of recusal are looked upon as opportunities on my faculty and I would guess many others as well.) The committee worked and argued and worked and argued some more. That dean moved on and was replaced. The new dean wanted no part the controversy that is invariably necessary to bring about change. He distanced himself from “program review” and turned a deaf ear to complaints that the directors – within in his administration -- of the programs under scrutiny had not reported their costs. (A charge he later conceded was true but the administrators remained.)

After two years, a report was written. The faculty voted not to consider it but to allow it to serve as something for the Dean to keep in mind. To say that the report was tame is an understatement. No programs were to be discontinued. There was a mild suggestion that one program should be increasing transferred over private funding. Years have passed and nothing became of it. In fact, in 25 years, as far as I know not one program of any kind had been eliminated or, for that matter, come close to it with the possibly exception of a “Summer School in Poland Program.” Again, I doubt we are different form other schools.

Once a program is established, people become attached it and are deeply vested. Efforts to examine a program are taken personally. Any attempt to overcome the resistance to examination is met with the charges of “uncollegiality.” “Owners” avoid evaluation of others for fear their will be the next to come under scrutiny.

This is what happens when the merits of what the privileged do are assessed by the similarly privileged.

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