Knowing What to Do, Not Doing It

The Penn State cover up and this recent comment on my facebook page:"Coverups abound. Just imagine this. Most of us in a university environment live under rules whereby professors are forbidden to have a romance with students in their units. Still, how many professors or students would tell their dean or another higher up of such an event if they knew of it. This is not to equate sex with minors with such relationships between students and professors. It merely illustrates the reluctance to speak up. The same thing goes on in the business world where sex between supervisors and staff is forbidden. Still few staff who know of it will say a peep. And some of this sex is coercive and where it is not it often results in the promotion of the complicit staff member over a more qualified staffer. Still most remain silent knowing that if they turned in the two love bunnies they would have no future in the firm. The rot surrounds us and sometimes we are part of it." led to the decision to repost this blog which I wrote over on Moneylaw a few years ago:




I appreciate the opportunity to write about capture and the self-dealing in legal education. There is one part of the system that I have not addressed directly. Every law school, or so I believe, has faculty members who know better and who are productive enough to have the legitimacy to influence their colleagues to put self interest aside and behave more ethically. By ethical I mean, as Dale Whitman has defined it, “[doing] the right thing even when it is contrary to our perceived self-interest.”

If there are excellent and potentially influential people at every school who know better, how does capture persist? I have already noted that lack of objective standards, weak deans, and appeals to “civility” play a role. Still, why don’t productive scholars and teachers overcome the inertia at their schools? I think a combination of two factors contribute to what is ultimately an institutional shirking problem.

First, being excellent as a scholar and teacher is not the same as having a backbone or any sense of obligation to anyone other than oneself. I believe this is called the independent contractor mentality. Law schools are full of them. You know them and you may be one of them. They go to a class visitation and privately concede that the person they observed was terrible but when their report appears the candidate was “a terrific teacher.” Or, they privately reveal that they read a tenure piece and it was not very good. Then at the tenure and promotion meeting they are silent. Or, they are appointed to a committee to assess the value of various pet programs. Privately they express concern that a great law school is not built by creating multiple tangential programs that have little value and reduce scholarship. But when it is time to actually have an impact, they are most likely to be found hiding under a desk.The world is full of brilliant and gutless people, but it is just possible that legal education attracts them in disproportionate numbers.

Second, speaking out at a school that has not already internalized a common commitment to excellence is met with sanctions. So even if the productive and potentially influential person has some sense of obligation other than to him or herself, there may be a price to pay. (Of course, isn’t the baseline measure of ethical conduct the willingness to pay that price?) One is the threat that the faculty member will be described as “not a good colleague” when higher-ranked schools express interest. This has always been the black ball for decanal candidates, but it seems to be the black ball for faculty hires as well. The result is very “careful” people. In fact, good advice for an ambitious scholar is to avoid controversy – even if on the side of righting an injustice – at any cost. The second sanction is internal social exclusion.

The productive but weak must respond to these sanctions or forget about moving up or being invited to the latest faculty cocktail party. Many professors I have observed who could have influence just cannot do it when anything is on the line that may get in the way of personal, professional and social ambitions.

There is an ironic twist to this. If a higher-ranked school actually is thinking about hiring a promising scholar or a dean, what are they getting if the candidate has pleased or even attempted to please everyone at his or her captured, mediocre, self-dealing, and underachieving school?