Saturday, November 13, 2010

Is it Stuck to Your Wall?

Your diploma I mean. Let's think about why someone frames and attaches or her diploma to the wall. Unless you just like to look at it yourself in case you forget you actually graduated, it's a form of advertising. Advertising can be good. It may provide useful information and lower the search costs of people who are buying what you are selling. A yellow page add that says "board certified" or even a framed certificate on an office wall may do that.

On the other hand, if you are a law professor, most people will assume you are qualified to be a law professor or that at least a small group of people in charge of hiring thought so. Your advertising falls into the category of an appeal to institutional authority. That is, if the institution from which you graduated has a good reputation -- an elite ivy league school, for example -- then you must be of similar ilk. The same is true if you feel compelled to name drop the name of your school whenever possible. (I have been told that a survey of Harvard grads in conversation found that on average "Harvard" is mentioned within the first minute.)

The problem is that this does not lower search costs but actually raises them. What we know is that some elite school grads are terrific law professors and some are awful. The same is true for non elite grads. Hanging the diploma on the wall can and often is misleading. It's a practice for those who are afraid to be identified by what they actually do.

2 comments:

eric said...

True story: My best friend went to law school at Harvard (a fact that he never mentions gratuitously, much to his credit). His father -- a very witty man who grew up fairly poor after emigrating the US from Nazi Germany -- was amused that the diploma, written in Latin, identified the school as "Harvardiana". "Oy veh!", the father quipped, "I spent all that money to send you to the finest law school in America and now everyone will think you went to Indiana!"

David R. Maass said...

Clarence Thomas famously displays his Yale diploma with a 15-cent price sticker on it. But one wonders whether he'd be on the Court without it.