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Thursday, January 05, 2017

AALS Annual Meeting Reform Proposals, Part III: Cut Back on the "Frequent Flyers"

The AALS annual meeting continues, and so does my series of posts offering some modest proposals for reform. I should add as a side note that readers may be interested in this post by Mark Tushnet at Balkinization discussing whether the AALS is a learned society or something else--specifically, something more like the trade organization for law schools that I pushed against in my first post. (I'm thankful to Brian Tamanaha for making a similar point in the comments to the last post.) It's an interesting point, and I'll write a separate post responding to it after I'm through with this series. 

My next suggestion for reform concerns the overuse of a few, generally well-known or "celebrity," generally elite law professors as speakers at the AALS. This, too, is something that I think is widely perceived as a problem. At the same time, there are reasons both to defend the practice, or at least to acknowledge sympathetically how and why it occurs and how difficult it is to remedy. Let me be clear that there is clearly a touch of "modest proposal," in the Swiftian sense, to the modest proposals I make below.

I know from past experience as a section head and as a program planner that the AALS encourages planners of section programs to take into account the need to include junior as well as established law professors as speakers, to seek at least some forms of diversity in panel composition, and so on. I also acknowledge that in planning section programs, I too have turned to some of those well-known profs (always for a reason, but it's never hard to come up with reasons, or excuses, to do so) as invited speakers. One reason they're invited is that they often actually have something valuable to say. Another is that they're demonstrably willing to come and speak. Finally, it's worth noting in fairness that the list of people who actually end up speaking doesn't show all the invitees who declined or canceled. Sometimes section meeting programmers try harder to avoid the list of overused speakers than the results suggest.

But although the AALS urges its program planners not just to turn to the same celebrity talking-heads time and again, it's also clear that not every planner takes that advice. Among other things, program planners have a strong incentive to invite famous names, in order to get better attendance and thus secure better time slots in future years. (It's also possible, as a commenter on the last post suggested, that they may do so for reasons of personal advancement.) Between those incentives, the sheer number of sections, the willingness or eagerness of some celebrity speakers to talk frequently (perhaps too frequently) on a wide (perhaps too wide) range of topics, and the general collective action problems involved, the result is that a small number of speakers, many of them from elite schools or with individual "celebrity" status regardless of where they teach, serve repeatedly, year after year, as speakers on multiple programs. Many attendees are at least a little tired of this phenomenon. Even those who see good reasons for it think it runs to excess. And most of us could come up with the names of the same half-dozen to dozen-and-a-half "frequent flyers" or "repeat offenders," if I may lightly and respectfully call them that.

Again, I acknowledge that these celebrity speakers may have plenty to say. (But not necessarily. I have seen some phoned-in appearances, as have we all. And who knows what interesting things a newbie or less-famous law professor might have said in their place, given both his or her actual expertise in the subject and the extra effort that might result from gratitude at being invited to speak?) I also know there is real interest in hearing them speak. Nevertheless, precisely because of all the collective action problems and the difficulty of keeping things to a reasonable level of repetition, I would suggest that the AALS, and all of us, would be better off with a fairly rigid rule-based approach here. That might consist of a limit on the number of speaking appearances any individual person can make per year at AALS, a limit on the number of times they can speak in a three-year period, or some combination or variant of the two.

To those reasonably plausible proposals, I would add a brace of less likely suggestions, acknowledging their somewhat Swiftian character, although I also admit to finding them intriguing. First: Once someone has made a certain total number of AALS appearances--25, say--they should be singled out for public recognition and applause at the annual meeting or in the program, given the equivalent of a gold watch or membership in an AALS Hall of Fame, and banned entirely from speaking at AALS for a period of, say, five years. Second, as a way to counter the incentive of individual section meeting planners to invite overexposed celebrity profs to speak, in order to secure attendance and improve the section's scheduled slot in the following year, while balancing that against the possibility that a section planner might think it's really vital to have that overused speaker, we could go with something like this: The AALS will compile a list of overexposed speakers. (Plenty of people would be willing to help with that effort.) Section planners will not be forbidden to invite one of them to serve as a speaker. But if they do, that section is automatically assigned an unattractive slot on the last day of the conference the following year. That way, a section planner who thinks it is absolutely necessary to invite Overexposed Speaker X to participate can do so--but he or she had better decide it's really worth it, because the section will suffer for it the year after.

These measures are obviously draconian. Like most rules, they are over-and under-inclusive, but may be necessary where standards won't suffice to solve the problem and it's better to have a firm rule. It may be worth it here; a "drive sensibly"-type standard is clearly not working. Such an approach would do a world of good, I think, especially for younger and less famous law professors from the more plebeian schools. Although it's not a principle reason for my suggestion, I would note that a policy along these lines would also be good for minority professors, both senior and junior, and in some cases would remedy the slight, perhaps only seeming, absurdity of some majority-group, elite celebrity professor being invited repeatedly to take the spotlight, and accept the plaudits, to pronounce on the virtues of diversity or the equal importance of all law schools, while junior professors, denizens of lower-ranked schools, and minorities are effectively frozen out of that speaking slot.

A few counterpoints and concluding observations after the jump.

Three concluding notes about this proposal. First, I repeat that it is in the nature of a "modest proposal," is unlikely to occur, and definitely has its share of arbitrariness. Think of it, in part, as a way to bring the issue of overexposed celebrity speakers at AALS to the surface and provoke discussion about it. Still, I'm not sure how much we should worry about its being somewhat arbitrary. It is arbitrary, but not terribly unjust, unless you think that being prevented from making Panel Appearance Number 26 is terribly unjust. And we might ask: Even if such a rule is arbitrary, what's the worst that would happen? On the one hand, we would lose some valuable remarks from some valuable speakers. On the other, as I think everyone agrees, not every celebrity speaker makes valuable remarks on every occasion, and some of them make the same points, albeit potentially valuable ones, repeatedly, so we wouldn't really lose that many insights on net. If they couldn't speak so often, they might only accept invitations to speak on the occasions where they believed could make the best contribution. We would hear from a wider and newer range of speakers, some of whom would turn out to have unexpected and terrific things to say. We might get more, and more varied, forms of diversity in the universe of conference speakers. Those possibilities seem worth the cost of a firm and somewhat arbitrary rule.     

Second, one possible objection is that for some (or many) law professors, this is the only chance they may get to meet and hear from some of these celebrity speakers--some of whom, after all, are celebrities for good reason. Although I'm sympathetic to this point, I don't think it outweighs the need to address what I see as a problem for the annual meeting. But I find the point interesting, unexpected and, as I said, sympathetic, and I'm happy to air it for discussion. 

Finally, let me note that in writing this post, I went over this year's list of speakers to scan for repeat performers. Two things struck me about them. First, to be demographically blunt, they are not all white men, or white women. (But most of them are.) Second, they are not all elite and/or "celebrity" professors. A large number of them are. But running close behind are individuals who are present or former AALS officers, not necessarily from elite schools, and many of whom are speaking on topics concerning legal education, often in programs put together by the AALS itself rather than individual sections. (If that is correct, we might worry about that.) My sense is that the list is somewhat broader than the stock image one might have in mind of repeat performers all coming from the same three or four schools. But I don't know whether that is always the case, or whether this year is different from the usual pattern. And I wouldn't want to overstate the breadth of the list. There is a celebrity culture in law schools, often involving faculty from the same few schools, and it does result in a number of generally elite repeat performers at AALS. I think it's worth acknowledging this fact more openly and discussing it, and what (if anything) ought to be done about it. The rules proposed here are intended to help encourage that, in part because of their epater-le-bourgeois quality--although I also kind of like the proposed rules, and perhaps especially the more far-fetched ones.   

Enjoy your annual meeting! 


Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 5, 2017 at 09:22 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


Another "Solution" in search of a non-existent Problem ... We don't need to institute some complicated scheme to limit the number of appearances by law professors on AALS panels. If the demand for Profs X, Y, and Z is great, any limit on the number of times X, Y, & Z can speak at the AALS will just distort the "markets" for speakers and listeners (e.g. perhaps less people will attend AALS if limits are imposed on Profs X, Y, & Z, or perhaps X, Y, and Z themselves might be less likely to attend, etc.). Instead, why not expand the AALS by another day or just add more panels for novice professors?

Posted by: Enrique Guerra-Pujol | Jan 13, 2017 3:53:22 PM

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