Monday, May 28, 2012

Anthropological Studies 4

Over on facebook I sometimes field letters addressed to the Law School Ethicist. It's a take off on the New Times Sunday Magazine column. I don't attempt to answer the questions sent to the "ethicist."  I am not qualified. I also do not make up all the questions asked. Almost all of them are based on actual incidents or are submitted to me. Recently I received this from a  close law school friend. His question in many ways captures something of the strange world of law professordom. 

Dear Jeff: Could you pass this on to the ethicist? What is the intention of the hiring process, exactly? I know that there are more than two views, but let me try to limit my question to two, since these two seem to me in tension. The first is a transparently meritocratic intention that acknowldeges a glittery resume indicating the potential for success in an academic post (success meaning advancement of various types for the new hire, the school, and its students). If the potential is realized, then so be it; if not, then it seems either the new hire squandered an opportunity or was overestimated by the hiring powers. Time for both to move on. The second is an opaquely nurturing intention where the hiring powers accept responsibility for the new hire as though the act of hiring was something they have done to (as opposed to for) the new hire. If he or she tanks, it is the fault of the hiring powers, not of the new hire. Accordingly, the promotion process is influenced by feelings of compassion manifested in utterances like "we need to bring Johnny up to speed before his next review. Let's get him some mentors!" Under the nurturing approach, the decision to hire carries an obligation to promote the new hire if at all plausible. Does the Ethicist prefer one approach to the other? Please advise.

My answer is that I personally prefer to first approach albeit administered in a helpful way. In the real world of law school hiring the second may be attractive but quickly morphs into a process that is really designed to avoid change and reinforce the power of incumbents. Nurturing has a nice sound but the goal of "nurturing" is to avoid having to admit a mistake. And nurturing, in the world of law professors, soon becomes creating an illusion about the new faculty member. Lousy scholarship is phrased and mentors scramble to make sure it is placed and then that it is positively reviewed. Someone who is slow in producing becomes "brilliant." Someone who has trouble in the classroom will have the classroom visited and the report will invariable be that he or she is a well organized and caring teacher who is actually too good for the students.  

Hiring someone does carry with it the obligation -- to the institution -- to do what is reasonable to help them succeed. But remember, they are typically adult graduates of elite law schools. What is reasonable stops well short of the hand-holding which is what typically goes on -- teaching loads are reduced, summer grants are granted,  and multiple mentors are appointed. In a very real sense it should be insulting to the new hire. What is reasonable also stops when those hiring begin to act like success or failure reflects on their own judgment and grease the skids. When they do that all they do is tenure someone and donate to them for life a position maybe a person who actually would be productive would hold. But such is this strange culture. 

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