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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Generosity on the students' dime

Greetings from a snowy(!) New York City.  I'm delighted to be back for another stint of blogging here on Prawfs.  Thanks to Dan for the opportunity.

I want to start with something small, but maybe illustrative of a bigger issue.  As I was in the back of a taxi on the way to the airport after a conference last week I started calculating the tip as we pulled onto the airport grounds.  I think I'm a good tipper (though I also think I'm a good driver, as an impossibly large percentage of Americans do).  At least let's assume I tip well.  The question then hit me, should I really be tipping generously on a fare that students are ultimately going to pay for?  

It was an interesting moment of "on the one hand, but on the other hand" thinking.  On the one hand, I think service people generally work hard for little pay; as long as the person is doing her best I'm inclined to be generous.  On the other hand, some of that generosity is, I think, based on some intuitive sense I have that I've been very fortunate and I really shouldn't scrimp when it comes to compensating people who work hard and make (a lot) less than I do.  But that reason doesn't apply to my students, at least not now in their lives.  Of course, the loans won't come due until they have jobs and are earning decent salaries.  But of course in this economy some of them may not be getting those salaries for quite a while.  And anyway, who am I to be making that calculus for them? But of course I have to do something -- the driver is waiting. ...

Anyway you get the idea.  Of course, it goes without saying that we should all be a little -- OK, a lot -- more careful about how we spend our students' money in this economy.  But assuming the cab ride or the restaurant meal or the hotel porter help (or the conference travel generally) is justified, what's appropriate for the discretionary part of the bill when it's our students paying for it?

Posted by Bill Araiza on October 29, 2011 at 06:32 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink

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Actually, as a frequent business traveler before law school (for one of the largest corporations in the world), most folks tip generously on their own dime and only expense the normal 15%. Of course we always tipped upwards of 20% or more depending on circumstances.
Isn't this what professors do as well???

Posted by: Anon | Oct 29, 2011 6:47:51 PM

One thing you could do, which I've considered doing (and may decide to do after thinking about this post), is only seek reimbursement for the fare, not the tip. I think the impact on students is pretty far removed (and in any event the academic development budget isn't really coming out of a separate pile of money from the salary budget), but I've always felt a little funny being generous with someone else's money, even if I'm equally generous with my own.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Oct 29, 2011 6:49:48 PM

That you even pause to think about it probably makes you a better person than most law professors.

Posted by: John | Oct 30, 2011 8:18:54 AM

Forget tipping: What about stuff like the SEALS conference, which is just a hugely expensive trip to the beach for law professors, most of whom don't bother to show up for most of the conference sessions?

Posted by: Shadowlighter | Oct 30, 2011 10:00:09 AM

I swear I am not trying to be mean. But it strikes me that you are talking about economizing on the one tiny part of the entire travel expense (the tip) that gives you personally no identifiable benefit, and that gives another (probably less well-off than you) person an immediate and clearly-quantifiable benefit.

If you are merely using this as a thought experiment, maybe it is a good enough one. But others come to mind, equally well, where it is the traveller's own convenience/comfort that is being traded off against the students' money. Eat lousy cheap food, stay in the Motel Six that is a long but cheap city bus ride away from the conference, etc.

Posted by: Sam | Oct 30, 2011 1:27:36 PM

By the way, I don't mean to suggest above that the "right" answer is to stay in the Motel Six and ask for half-price day-old sandwiches from Subway. I don't think it is. But I also think you should tip as generously when traveling on reimburseable business as you tip when you're on your own.

Posted by: Sam | Oct 30, 2011 1:32:43 PM

I disagree with your premise that it is "the students' dime." It is not the students' dime, it is the law school's dime. The students should have no more say over how much you tip the porter than you have a say over how much Bill Gates (I assume you use Windows) pays his butler. Your dean might have a very good reason to want you to be careful with the money; but it ceases to be "the students' money" when they hand it over in an arms length voluntary transaction.

Let me be equally clear: there is every reason to want lower tuition and to limit students' financial burdens. But just because tuition is too high does not mean "the money" still belongs to the students. The point is important precisely because the rhetorical effect you are trying to create, akin to saying that politicians should be careful with the taxpayer's money. Students do not pay taxes to their law school, the school does not hold their tuition in trust, and law professors are not fiduciaries to their students. This would still be true even if we tripled tuition tomorrow.

Posted by: anonprof | Oct 30, 2011 2:50:49 PM

I think 6:47 said it. Seek reimbursement for a standard 15 percent tip - bear the cost of any further "generosity" yourself.

Posted by: anon | Oct 31, 2011 2:13:23 AM

Thanks for the comments, which give a lot of food for thought. I like 6:47's (aka Anon's)suggestion about expensing only the first 15% of the tip and taking the rest out of one's own wallet. It's an elegant solution and I appreciate it. (By the way, I worked for a large bank before law school and practiced with a large law firm for several years before entering into the academy, and I don't recall that sort of rule -- though maybe it was one of those things that was a formal rule that nobody enforced).

As for Sam's point, I take it as a given (and I thought I said as much in the post) that all this assumes the basic expense is justified. Now, I suppose the objection is that the trip may be justified, but, say, staying at the conference hotel is not. Fair enough. But I do think it's a different question how much "personal-benefit-granting" expenditures should be cut. It's an important question, because, as Sam notes, those are the lion's share of the expenses for conference travel; the tip share is really small (as I noted in the post). But once we start balancing, say, the cost of the conference hotel versus the time cost of the bus ride to the suburban Motel Six, then we're talking about a different matter.

Anonprof's comment raises an entirely different issue, which I guess I'd like to think about some. I have to say, though, that my gut is that I do feel like a fiduciary, at least in some ways. I'm telling them to buy the $150 book rather than the $100 because I represent that it's the book they'll learn the most from. And when I tell a student I'm traveling to Timbuktu for a conference, I do feel like I'm telling him, at least to some degree, that I'm doing for reasons that will redound to the benefit of the institution, and thus implicitly for her own ultimate good. Maybe that's not a fiduciary responsibility in the formal sense, but it sure doesn't seem like a relationship where I feel free to say "you paid your tuition, and at this point I owe you no care about how I spend money that you paid in tuition -- I answer only to the dean."

Posted by: Bill Araiza | Oct 31, 2011 5:18:44 PM

I also worked for a large law firm for a while. There was no rule about what percentage tip we should leave. But I see no reason for the employees of a large law firm in good financial health to try to cut costs re: things like taxi fares, e.g. by leaving a 15 percent tip rather than a 20 percent tip. There is no "students' dime" issue.

Posted by: HLS | Oct 31, 2011 5:39:31 PM

HLS: I was responding to Anon's suggestion that that's what s/he did in the corporate world (or observed happening). But in re-reading the comment, maybe what Anon is describing is not a rule, but just a practice.

Posted by: Bill Araiza | Oct 31, 2011 5:43:05 PM

Bill, the $150 book is clearly different, because there it is the students' money that you are directing them to spend. Your conference to Timbuktu redounds to the benefit of the institution, which has something to do with the students (they are among the stakeholders of the institution), but it remains that the students and the law school are not one and the same.

Posted by: anonprof | Oct 31, 2011 5:43:33 PM

The question of how much the professor should economize on the expenditures that redound in part to the professor's direct personal benefit is, as you say, "different" in some ways from the question of economizing on the tip. I guess my point, to be more candid about it, was (a) at least 90-something percent of the expenditure-decisions that a professor has some say over are, surely, of the partially-to-professor's-own-benefit sort, so a serious discussion of economic fiduciary duty ought to focus directly on those to start; and (b) it is always easier, for each of us, to cleverly come up with good reasons why the other guy maybe ought to suffer a little bit for the sake of some greater good, than it is for us to come up with good reasons why we ourselves ought to. Again not trying to be mean, really I swear - don't know you, don't know whether you are the most altruistic guy in town or the least or somewhere in the middle. But discussions about justifications for reduced tipping rub me the wrong way, I guess.

Posted by: Sam | Oct 31, 2011 7:06:40 PM

Sam, I get what you're saying. Like I've said a couple of times now, it was not my intention to get into the larger discussion you think is called for. I think I understand your basic point -- that you can't really have the discussion I started without raising the larger issue you identify. But I'm not really sure I agree that one requires the other. The tipping point really is analytically distinct: to what extent should we be generous to others when it's not our money? It may be quantitatively trivial, but it's still a distinct issue from the question of how much we should sacrifice our own well-being (e.g., by travelling or staying at Hotel A rather than Hotel B) when it's not our money. That's not to say that latter discussion is not worth having. It's just not the discussion I intended to start.

Posted by: Bill Araiza | Nov 1, 2011 8:57:44 AM

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