Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Facial or Substantive Collegiality

I have written about collegiality before from a different slant. My point was that when a law professor complains about the collegiality of someone else, at least half the time it is about the substance of what has happened and not the manner of handling it. And, if appeals to collegiality are bogus 50% of the time, it's hard to take any of them seriously.

But there is another way to look at collegiality. It is like this: A lack of collegiality is present when one member of the community causes an externality (imposes costs on others) with impunity. By "with impunity" I mean without regard for those affected. This gets to the point of distinguishing facial collegiality – hey, let’s have lunch, etc. – from substantive collegiality. By substantive collegiality I mean not heaping the externalities of self-interested decisions and demands on other professors and staff.

For example, take the summer teaching issue at my law school. The appeal by the administration is something along the lines of (I am paraphrasing) “We have very generous summer research grants and we also try to operate a robust summer program. If you have not taught on campus in the summer recently, please consider teaching this summer." The number of takers of 60? When you subtract people on retirement plans that calculate payments based on most recent years’ income, the number of takers is 5. In effect, those choosing not to teach leave it to others to maintain the program.

Or how about the constant push to teach as few hours as possible and to cap class size. (Interesting, isn't it, everyone of these people professed to love teaching when interviewing.) At Florida, for example, we’ve got 1100 student who need 88 credit hours to graduate. If you happened to get your own teaching load down to nearly nothing and then cap your classes at 20 or 25, who do you suppose is doing the teaching? This is another externality. Yet I know of no professor who has said. “I see Phil is teaching first year contracts and Evidence and a total of 200 students. Why not divide up that contracts sections and I will teach half of it?” Or when is the last time you have heard a dean say, "Joan, I just do not feel allowing you to teach 40 students a year is fair to your colleagues." Smile and it’s facial collegiality. Dig in and do something and it is substantive collegiality.

Some other routine practices are cancelling class one or two days before holidays. You feel great! What a good guy you are! So understanding! Who feels the pressure from the students when that happens – your so-called “colleagues.” Externality.

Can’t be on campus more that day or two a week? Guess who has to teach the other days to accommodate your schedule? Or who has to arrange his or her schedule to have committee meetings on your days? Your colleagues! Externality.

Can't possibly teach other than from 10-2 Mon. - Wed or Mon. - Thurs. Fine, It's yours if you whine enough, but someone will have another and less desirable time. Externality.

Giving a 3.5 GPA to students who are no better than those taught by your colleagues? Guess who the students are saying the poor teachers are? Externality.

Are you an administrator who prefers to close your eyes to this? Pleeeeze! Don't be surprised if the collegiality level is low on your faculty. You are an externality facilitator!

I'll take appeals to collegiality seriously when they focus not on the delicate people who are offended when they hear anything less than fully affirming and more on the indifference colleagues have toward their coworkers. Facial collegiality is easy. Substantive collegiality requires effort.

The connection between a lack of collegiality and externalities leads to a series of addtion thoughts:

1. How can people who teach so much about property rights, and identifying and reacting to externalities not understand the implications of those teachings in the context of the day to day life of a law school.? Is it another case of avoiding any analysis that creates dissonance? I see this all the time in scholarship so it makes sense that it is at work when assessing one's own behavior.

2. How far does the failure to internalize have to go before a law school begins to experience something like the “tragedy of the commons?” Here it is a bit tricky. It may not be that the “sheep” go out and find there is little to graze on. Instead the output is a bit different – students who are not as prepared for the bar exam or for practicing law as they should be and the amount and quality of scholarship declines. Plus, real as opposed to nominal collegiality falls.

3. To an economist, any cost imposed on another is an externality. On the other hand, it is only when law comes into the picture and defines rights that it has a practical meaning. This is because, in the absence of private contracts (hard to do with 30-60 people), or a solution to the prisoner’s dilemma (not solved on my faculty at least), clearly defined rights and enforcement are essential.

This is, of course, where deans come into the picture. Without clearly defined – not made up on an ad hoc basis – rules that everyone understands and which are backed by sanctions, the feeding frenzy is on and the commons is doomed.

This may sound like a tall order for administrators. Maybe, but shouldn’t the overall health of the law school be their highest priority? Ironically, consistent with my usual tendency, I have painted a relative positive a picture here. Rather than “rationalizers” of the commons by which I mean bringing order to the commons, many deans facilitate its destruction by avoiding controversy, rarely saying no to an externality producer, having no predictable standards, refusing to take responsibility for what happens under their watch, and taking actions that will pit one faculty member against another.

Interesting that the "nicest" administrators and faculty members may actually be the most destructive to the commons.