Vanity, Law School Hiring and Subsidizing Ourselves

If markets works, a lower demand for what is being produced means decreased need for labor which means either lay offs or attrition.

But when they do not work, decreased demand may be unrelated to the purchase of inputs and, in fact, inertia may mean keeping capacity at the same level. One of the best instances of institutions not responding to markets is legal education.

I have written before about the capture of law schools by faculty who then determine based on self interest what will be taught, when it will be taught, how many will be taught, and virtually every other aspect of the business. Think of it as something like General Motors with the workers making the decisions and those deciding are all based on what feels good to them regardless of how many cars are produced or their quality. The difference is the GM workers would not do that because GM would fold. Law schools don't fold.

One thing that law professors like to produce is cute little compact cars (courses) for which there is little demand but which they really like working on. These are the so called vanity courses or courses that would not be offered but for the presence of a particular professor on a faculty. Otherwise the course would be on the shelf indefinitely or not even in the catalogue.

What appears to increasingly fuel hiring needs is the unwillingness of faculty to be less vain in what they teach and their insensitive to costs. For example, suppose you are on a faculty of 60 and teaching "International Poverty Law for Accounting Majors" to 15 students a year. The school has a desperate need for someone to teach evidence and virtually any law professor could do that. But, it might mean giving up your beloved International Poverty Law Course. (Actually it would not but that would mean teaching more than the minimum possible number of hours and you know that ain't going to happen).

So, in a declining market, law schools continue to hire and increasingly the costs are passed onto students and the end result is to ask them to subsidize the teaching of a course that only exists to please a faculty member.

When push comes to shove we know that faculty always vote to subsidize themselves and their follies.

THE Best University Workplace Survey: staff unheard?

Around four in 10 university employees feel unable to make their voices heard within their institutions, according to preliminary findings from the first Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey. Analysis of the first 2,300 responses to the survey, which is still open to all university employees, reveals that 37 per cent disagree with the statement: “I can make my voice heard within my university.”

The figure rises to 56 per cent when including those who neither agree nor disagree.

“There is de facto no meaningful management at an everyday level,” says one senior lecturer at a university in the South West of England. “Shop-floor problems such as too few teaching staff are usually ignored by managers and dealt with by staff ad hoc.

“There is almost no meaningful forward planning beyond thinking about the needs of [the research excellence framework], or branding issues such as the National Student Survey.”

A respondent from another institution, who works as an IT technician, sums up the concerns of many respondents, saying: “Communication between staff and senior management tends to be a bottleneck in both directions. Senior management makes all the right noises – but never checks that it is happening in practice.”

However, although many employees appear to feel overlooked by their institution’s hierarchy, the vast majority enjoy working with their peers. Just 6 per cent say they do not, with some 47 per cent “strongly agreeing” when asked if they enjoy working with their immediate colleagues.

“My department is particularly good at supporting early career academics. I have worked at other institutions where levels of exploitation are appalling but [my department] is especially sensitive to the needs of [such] staff and proactive in ensuring they get the support and career development they need,” says one academic at a Russell Group university.

A professor at a 1994 Group institution adds: “My line manager is an excellent, responsive, can-do sort of person who really cares about his academic colleagues. My department has really good morale.”

The Best University Workplace Survey is open to all UK higher education staff. John Gill, THE’s editor, said: “The larger the number of people that participate in the survey, the more detailed will be the picture that we piece together about working life in our universities.

“Our intention in this first year of the survey is simply to get an idea of the areas in which universities are performing well as employers, and those where they need to do more.”


Exeter’s rankings success gained at staff’s expense

League table success at the University of Exeter may have been gained at the expense of staff, who claim to have experienced “undue stress”, “bullying”, sexism and a “loss of voice”, according to an internal report.

A group convened at the request of management and led by Nicky Britten, professor of applied healthcare research at the institution, has identified a “top-down management” culture as a source of problems at Exeter.

Based on 288 responses from the university’s 3,900 staff, the report says that many people found the senior management team remote, with major decisions being “made by a small group of people behind closed doors without consultation”.

“The tone of communication (described as ‘hectoring’) might have been appropriate for managing underperformance ten years ago, but is inappropriate now,” reads the report, which was presented to the university’s council, alongside the senior management’s response, on 21 February.

Many staff felt their opinions were ignored, “with no acknowledgment or feedback”, it adds. The group also documents “some alarming reports of bullying, manipulative and unpleasant behaviour” by particular senior managers and a feeling among some that the university “is a self-perpetuating male-dominated culture” with policies such as maternity leave not taken seriously.

“There are reports of men making casual sexist remarks…referring to women as ‘girls’, promoting men over women (despite the women having equal or better CVs),” it adds.

The investigation was initiated after the university’s wider staff survey of 2012, which found that 36 per cent reported feeling unduly stressed, compared with a benchmark figure at universities conducting the same survey of 28 per cent.

The survey also found that only 60 per cent said they felt able to voice opinions, compared with a sector benchmark of 76 per cent.

Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith told Times Higher Education that senior management would respond to the concerns identified by the group, and in many cases had already made changes.

Expanding student numbers and raising Exeter from an average ranking position of 34th in the UK during the 1990s to the top 10 today had meant being “very centralist”, he said. However, efforts were now being made to try to reverse this.

Exeter had already reinstated academic heads of discipline to decision- making positions on the university’s college executives and was on a recruitment drive that would reduce workloads, he said.

“I could have written to staff saying ‘we’ve got the [2012] survey results and we did better [than] or the same [as the benchmark] in 17 out of 25 [areas]’, but the truth is I know that there are tensions…We’re trying to be as open as possible,” Sir Steve said. The problem would now be working out how widespread the concerns were and whether or not they were historical, he added.

However, co-president of the Exeter branch of the University and College Union, Jo Melling, said the union felt that senior management’s response did “not meet the needs outlined” by the group.

“In particular, we are concerned that the vice-chancellor’s executive group has not recognised the issue about voice and governance that the group clearly flagged up,” he said, pointing to recommendations that the university commission an independent review of distribution of power within the institution.

Management has said that the university’s governance will be assessed in 2014 as part of its regular five-yearly reviews.


Class at the Movies: Elysium

Tonight I saw Elysium. Yo! It was pretty crazy. The Earth becomes a dump and all the rich people move to a steering wheel in outer space. Max, homage to Mad Max, gets into a peck of trouble down in the dump and wants to get to the steering wheel to get rid of his troubles. I'll not tell you what the troubles are but I think he got his childhood sweetheart pregnant. Not sure on this because I was sleeping waiting for the next big fight scene to start and because the fumes from the bourbon the guy behind me was guzzling was over powering. And his girlfriend had this annoying laugh (not Max but the guy behind me) -- you know the kind, not really a laugh because she is laughing but laughing to let you know she "got it." (I wanted to slug her.) In fact, she got nothing because she did not laugh at all at the funny parts assuming there were funny parts which I cannot be sure of because of the nap between fight scenes.

Sorry for the digression. Anyway, Jodie Foster is in the movie with a wardrobe I would kill for -- all slick, beautiful fabrics and stunningly accessorized. She, unfortunately, developed a bit of a sore throat at the end was not able to complete the film. I was so looking forward to the next ensemble. Either that or she was seeing her tailor.

It all ends well. We stop sending aid to Egypt and instead reroute it to Earth. Jessie and Walt go back to cooking but only soup at a homeless shelter. Max and his girlfriend reconcile after a bit of a scuffle up on the steering wheel and live happily ever after except for one exception that is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.