Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Playing the "Fairness" Card and Rawls

Recently, in a comment, I was accused of not being fair. It made me realize how specialized a sense of unfairness can be. I have no idea who wrote the comment and the identity is not important because I am sure a narrowly focused sense of fairness is something we all possess. I am not talking here about accusations of unfairness that are actually generated by some other disagreement. After all, it’s always nice, at least strategically, to start any criticism by saying the other person is “unfair.” It’s a first cousin of “you are uncollegial.” Both often mean, “I don’t like what you did but do not want to confront the merits.”

One of the most interesting narrow senses of fairness I witnessed was several years ago when faculty had family members in class and, as I recall, family members tended to do very well in those classes. It was a big deal and after months of faculty grumbling and people trying to get other people to raise the issue, there was a meeting and the faculty voted unanimously, or close to it, to ban family members in class. Then the question was what do to about family members already in class. Someone said they should be graded pass/fail. Someone else argued that was unfair because those students registered for those classes more or less expecting to make A’s. That view carried the day. I could not see what was unfair since it seemed like common sense to me that children. should not be in mom or dad’s class..

Mainly, though, fairness seems to be granted first to those we know and people we do not know get short shrift. Like the commentator to my post of mine about a faculty candidate, there was perceived unfairnes to that candidate, but evidently no unfairness to dozens of unknown people waiting patiently for phone calls and excluded by the process and the biases of those running it. Similarly, I could count on two toes (that would be twice) the number of times I have heard someone object to a faculty program, research grant, or tenure because it would be unfair to the taxpayers and tuition payers. In fact, I have heard programs defended not because they are fair to those paying for them, but because not that much money is involved.

Sometimes I do hear the argument that something would be unfair to the students but it’s usually as an added justification for doing what a faculty wants to do. For example, I have not heard, at least publicly, that it is unfair to the students to make up several classes during the last week, not teach needed courses, to schedule courses so they conflict in order to appease faculty or any of the other faculty-favoring practices that make life tougher on students. My hunch is that this would change if discussed at faculty meetings with students in attendance. Unfortunately fair or not fair seems to be a function of the visibility or invisibility of those affected.

I wonder if there is any way to make law school governance decisions behind the veil of ignorance.


A Student At UF said...

It's unfair to family members in a class to be graded pass/fail because they expect an A. That's just crazy. Especially when you consider it is a curve and they are throwing off the curve because they most likely DON'T DESERVE the A. If that holds true, then someone else who deserved it got graded lower because of the higher grade that wasn't earned. That seems far more unfair. Whoever said that in those meetings needs to sit in on the first year Professional Responsibility classes and focus on conflicts of interest. Oh wait. No they don't, because lets face it, if they haven't learned about ethics and morality by the age of about 14, they are never gonna learn it. Shame on their parents for not teaching it to them.

Anonymous said...

First, thanks for addressing the issue of faculty taking time off without regard to their students when changing the course schedule. I don’t think of this as an issue of fairness as much as one of respect – or rather lack of respect. (I thank you for your consideration in altering our schedule this semester.)

Regarding your reference to the past practice of faculty having family members in their class: If I registered for a class expecting an “A” based on anything more than my own merits and performance (i.e. because mommy or daddy is the instructor), my ethical barometer would be going haywire. If the law school faculty has a problem understanding why that situation is inherently wrong, it’s troubling to think about the lawyers who will graduate (or have in the past) under their tutelage.

Jeff Harrison said...

To anon 1: I agree unfair probably an overused word but that was the argument at the time.

To UF student: As far as I know the ban on the practice, now in effect for some time, has been effective.

Anonymous said...

Taken together, your UF anecdotes lead me to conclude that the place is an absolute insane asylum.

Jeff Harrison said...

Maybe but remember not all anecdotes are from UF. In fact, I am told by some readers that it sounds like I am describing their schools. Frankly, I wonder why any law school should be different. I have concluded, for what it's worth, that it just takes a small number of people at the margin to change the entire personality of a school. As you may know I often describe the problem as destruction of the commons. How many of the partipants in the commons does it take to destroy it? The answer is far less than a majority. So if you have a few advantage-taking faculty and a majority that that look away, healty norms are not established and the common suffers. The real question is can it recover?

Anonymous said...

Based on what I have learned from you and others at UF, it seems that there is no effective informal sanctioning going on at UF. As you know, formal sanctioning (e.g., termination, pay cuts, etc...) by the institution for bad or opportunistic behavior is nearly impossible in the academic setting. In my experience, good schools rely on community norms and strong informal sanctions. For example, people who blatantly put their own personal interests over that of the institution or who shirk are shunned socially and professionally.

You complain about ineffective deaning. But in my view, the policing of behavior has to come from the masses.

Jeff Harrison said...

Yes, I have complained about ineffective deaning but have gradually also come to agree with your view. If you look a couple of posts ago to Moms, Dads and Deans you will see what I mean.

On the other hand, I think deans can play a role by more or less moderating things. I do not mean sanctions as much as saying no to demands that are outside the norm. For example, this might include an unusally light teaching load, excessive travel in the middle of classes, etc. Once a dean decides his or her job is simply to say yes as much as possible without considering the ripple effects, he or she facilitates the breaking down of norms.

UF has been unlucky in the past on this score and now I am not sure any dean could or be expected to repair things. Ironically, I believe a majority of the faculty would prefer norms of hard work and high standards but that would mean unsetting social comfort, a price most are also unwilling to pay