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The business of the academy

[ 19 ] February 18, 2013 |


In an example of what could be called the ongoing Dilbertization of academic life, every year CU law school faculty members are required to do a “self-evaluation,” which is supposed to supplement and enlarge upon the formal report of professional activities which all faculty at the university are asked to submit.

This year’s version of what seems vaguely like a hybrid between the rituals concocted by business consultants and Maoist cadres contains the following question:

For the period since January 2011, please discuss your engagement in the life of the law school, focusing on the following:

Please describe your support for and involvement with the effort to recruit admitted applicants (e.g., making phone calls, meeting with interested students, participating in Admitted Students lunches, etc.).

I suppose it would come as a great surprise to the administrative class that comes up with this stuff to be told that, under current circumstances in particular, this sort of question is extremely inappropriate. For instance, compare it with this hypothetical question:

Please describe your support for and involvement with the effort the convey to the larger community that the American legal system is the best in the world.

Everyone, I imagine, would recognize that evaluating faculty members on the basis of the extent to which they participated in such an effort would be indefensible, given that such an evaluative process would reward and punish faculty on the basis of their willingness to support a controversial intellectual and political position, even though it’s one that law school deans as a pragmatic matter treat as self-evidently true upon certain occasions.

Expecting faculty to uncritically “recruit” admitted applicants could only be a reasonable expectation if, at a minimum, one takes the view that literally everyone the law school’s admissions committee decides to admit would be better off accepting rather than declining that invitation. A significant number of the faculty at my school disagree with that view, although perhaps only one of them would be so tactless as to say so in public. Telling these people that they’re being evaluated on the basis of their willingness to mortify their consciences on this particular point is wrong. Actually doing so is even more indefensible. (This is not a hypothetical: I know of at least one faculty member who was sanctioned in the evaluation process for giving candid advice to an admitted student who solicited it, and who enrolled subsequently at a top ten law school. For those interested my response to the self-evaluation question was: “I believe this question is framed incorrectly, as I don’t believe faculty members should be ‘recruiting’ admitted applicants. I do believe it’s a faculty member’s proper institutional role to give candid and helpful feedback to admitted or prospective applicants when they ask for such feedback, which I have done on numerous occasions.”).

What I find particularly interesting about this is the extent to which university administrators have now internalized the norms of profit-maximizing businesses. In this evaluative context, recruiting admitted students is thought of as moving product, and apparently it would no more occur to an administrator that a faculty member would object to be asked to participate uncritically in this enterprise than it would occur to the manager of a car dealership that members of his sales force might object to being asked to participate uncritically in the enterprise of selling the dealership’s stock.

And of course this is not only a problem at law schools. As academia gets increasingly indistinguishable from any other business, the tension between the demands of profit maximization (in the context of technical non-profits profit maximization means running the institution for the financial benefit of its most powerful internal stakeholders, i.e., administrators, and to a lesser extent tenure-track faculty) and intellectual honesty become ever-more severe.

In the end, if universities are going to be run like businesses, they should be treated as such — from paying taxes, to being laughed at when they ask alumni for donations. After all, Toyota doesn’t call you up five years after you bought a Corolla, to ask you to give them some money out of sheer gratitude for the “quality” of their “product.”


Comments (19)

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  1. Jameson Quinn says:

    Maoist business consultants… the only upside is that perhaps they would eventually self-Darwin because they couldn’t get past the jargon enough to communicate their basic needs.

  2. sara says:

    Sorry, but I find this criticism more than a little silly. Yes, events relating to admitted students are called ‘recruitment,’ but note that the listed activities DON’T require profs to say “This is the best school ever for everyone.” Instead, it’s about making yourself open to meeting with admitted students, answering their questions, etc. so that they can get a real sense of the school and make an informed decision. If professors routinely opt out of these activities, it will a) be impossible for admitted students to figure out which of the schools they got into might be a good fit, and b) discourage ANYONE from coming, even those for whom the school is a perfect fit, because it will appear that the faculty are not engaged and not accessible. When I went to various admitted students days as a prospective grad student, I found that almost everyone was willing to talk about both pro’s and con’s of their institution, and were also willing to say things like “Well, if thing A is what you’re really passionate about, then this other school would be a better fit for you.” So a faculty member could easily do all the things mentioned on that evaluation question, but not say ONLY positive things or act like everyone is a perfect fit for the school. If a professor really thinks NO ONE who has been admitted would be a good fit, then maybe they should not be working at that institution….

    • Please describe your support for and involvement with the effort to recruit admitted applicants

      This is not a hypothetical: I know of at least one faculty member who was sanctioned in the evaluation process for giving candid advice to an admitted student who solicited it

      The neutral evaluation process you describe could conceivably exist, but it’s not the one Campos describes in operation at his school, and the latter will only become more prevalent as schools become more and more profit oriented.

    • Alan Tomlinson says:

      I don’t see it as you do. I came back to college in my late 20s and when I visited schools the last people I wanted to talk with were professors. I wanted to talk with students about how they found the school. Perhaps my situation was different since I already knew that the school was respected.


      Alan Tomlinson

  3. Davis X. Machina says:

    What I find particularly interesting about this is the extent to which university administrators have now internalized the norms of profit-maximizing businesses.

    From a country where ‘Marketing’ is an undergraduate degree pari passu with physics and philosophy, what else were we expecting?

    Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
    Alle Menschen werden Konsumer…

    • Lee Rudolph says:

      At a place where I no longer work, what was a decade ago a small division called “Communications”, that did graphic design and page layout for catalogues, the alumni magazine, and so on (certainly including fund-raising operations etc. etc.), and was several layers down in the organizational chart, is now named “Marketing and Communications” and headed by YAVP (with salary commensurate to the new name, naturally) reporting directly to the President.

      I used to say that that place (at least) was engaged in cargo cult management, since it seemed clear to me, as to all but the most administratively-captured/falsely-conscious administered masses, that much of the administrators’ work (and nearly all of the onerous extra work that they created for the administered masses, including but not limited to the administered academics, to spend their time and energies on) was going through motions that (generously) might be worthwhile in an actual widget factory but were sheer folderol in a (place purported to be a) university. However, now that Paul Campos has suggested that in the context of technical non-profits profit maximization means running the institution for the financial benefit of its most powerful internal stakeholders, I see that I just wasn’t cynical enough.

  4. Ken says:

    I’m guessing that part two of “engaging in the life of the law school” is not

    Please describe your support for and involvement in the teaching process (e.g. teaching classes, leading seminars, serving on thesis boards, grading papers, etc.)

    Because if there’s one thing that’s been constant in my various stints in business and academia, these evaluations are written by administrators who assume that the most important thing the company or college does is… administration.

    • Keaaukane says:

      This. My father was a professor at U of Hawaii. Back in the mid 80’s the faculty union went out on strike, as well as the grad assistants. Complete shut down, no classes at all. One fool administrator went on the local news to say that the university was functioning just fine, they just didn’t teach any classes.

      Unclear about the purpose of a university does not even begin to cover it.

      • Heelfilcher says:

        To be quite fair, many faculty at R1 universities also think that the business of the university could go on just fine without classes. They’re in the research business, after all; teaching is just what ends up paying (some of the) bills.

  5. GeoX says:

    Question, straight-up: do you think the CU law school should be shut down altogether?

    • rea says:

      Not to speak for Prof. Campos, but quite apart from all considerations of the job market for lawyers, every states needs a law school, particularly because part of the purpose of a law school ought to be legal scholarship, not simple generating new flocks of fledgling lawyers. CU is a decent school; it ought to survive any purge.

  6. Monday Night Frotteur says:

    Two questions for Paul:

    1) How much do the administrators at your law school make? Add in the cost of consultants, etc.

    2) How many administrators did your law school have in 1970, and how many does it have today? If the answer to that is “a few” and “a lot,” why would legal education in 2013 require more administration than legal education in 1970?

  7. Crackity Jones says:

    Keep the top 20 or so schools. Then every state deserves at least one public school for scholarship and for its own market (government, industry, etc). Maybe two for a big state. There should be about as many law schools as there are dental schools. I believed this a decade and a half ago and I believe it more fervently today.

  8. Arthur says:

    Recruiting is part of the job. If you can’t do it in good conscience, it’s time to resign. Your position is similar to the pharmacists who refuae to fill prescriptions for the morning after pill, and claim they should keep their jobs because of religious freedom.

    Professor have you given much thought to the morality of your profiting from the scam you’re exposing? You can make a decent living without depending on the proceeds of those unaffordable loans.

  9. Marc says:

    Presumably there should be some incoming law students, unless it’s your position that law schools shouldn’t exist. It’s fair to warn people about the challenges for finding a long-term position in the field. By the same token, a 50-50 shot at a job in your field is significantly higher than the norm in a lot of academic disciplines. The key distinction is cost and how transferable the skills are – e.g. a PhD in the sciences can be useful in non-academic contexts and you typically would get a salary, not loans, while in school.

    I agree with the statement that we’re graduating far too many lawyers. What I don’t have a good feel for is a sense of what the “right number” actually is; it isn’t zero. Should schools be graduating half as many? The same number at a lower cost? Training students for alternative careers where a legal education could be useful?

  10. Bloix says:

    “Toyota doesn’t call you up five years after you bought a Corolla”

    Five years? I’m the parent of a junior at a “name” liberal arts college. Every semester we get dunning calls asking us to contribute to the “parents’ fund” – only weeks after we’ve written our son’s tuition check.

  11. Aaron says:

    Methinks the good professor doth protest a bit too much on this one. Faculty at tuition-dependent schools recognized a long time ago that their support for admissions/recruitment efforts was in their self interest, both by helping ensure their paycheck and by having some input into the quality of student that eventually shows up in the classroom. Having said this, there doesn’t seem to be much conversation at those schools about transferring some of the administrative salary pool back to faculty for performing some administrative work…at any rate the genie here, whatever it looks like, is not going back in the bottle. The refreshing critical perspective about the law school scam shouldn’t be hidden away when it comes time to look at higher education in general. The question is no longer should colleges & universities be run like businesses, but rather something like what businesses should they be run like. Because whatever the current model is honors neither education nor commerce…

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