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Monday, January 22, 2007

What Distinguishes Elite Academics -- For Good or Ill?

Via the usual roundabout route, I came across this post by Profesor Bainbridge, titled "Does what 'elite' professors think matter?"  Bainbridge is replying to someone's statement that "[i]f all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view."  Bainbridge responds:

I'm 48 years old. I spent 11 years in college and graduate school, with the latter 7 years spent at elite institutions. I've spent 18 years teaching at law schools ranked in the top 25, which I think safely qualify as elite institutions. Having thus spent 60% of my life hanging out with elite professors, I feel confident in saying that: If all I know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, I would be inclined to be skeptical of that view.

Bainbridge argues that while professors deserve some deference for views within their area of expertise, beyond that they are entitled to no more deference than anyone else, and possibly less, because "[u]niversity faculties tend to be highly self-selected and appointments tend to be dominated by network effects that produce a remarkable homogeneity of belief . . . . Outside their areas of expertise (and sometimes even inside it), their beliefs tend to be colored by their ideology and by the need to conform to the expectations of their colleagues."

Although I think Bainbridge overstates matters, I certainly have no quarrel with his general argument that academics' special claim to authority runs out past their point of expertise.  Let me, though, use Bainbridge as a vehicle for asking two slightly different questions.  Both the quote that Bainbridge is responding to and the title of his post single out "elite" professors.  Let me ask :

1) What is it that elite professors possess that non-elite professors do not?  Is it expertise in their subject matter?  Certainly that's a strong possibility.  Prolixity?  (For some, surely, but not all.)  General intellectual facility?   A greater propensity toward innovation?  Or, to take a more sociology-of-the-academic-professions view, does their skill lie in timing, or strategic thinking about their scholarly agenda, or (at least in the legal academy) strategic skill at colonizing other disciplines?  Is it, at least some of the time, a greater facility in exploiting networks of friends and colleagues and, more generally, a greater gift at self-promotion, as what Bainbridge says would suggest?  Are they more rhetorically facile -- more glib and quick?  Is it, at least some of the time, that they share a particular class background?

2) Let me ask a related question: What do non-elite possessors possess, positively or negatively, that elite professors do not?  I think most people assume that the difference between elite and non-elite professors is linear -- that elite professors are just more of the same, only better.  Given the status insecurity of the academy, shared by both elite and non-elite professors alike, I think both kinds of professor may tend to share this view.  And it may be right.  But I don't know that it is, and it's worth thinking about.  Are there qualities that non-elite professors lack that determine their non-elite status?  Is there no difference?  Comforting though this might be to think, and true as it sometimes is, I think it can hardly be generally true.  And are there any positive qualities that non-elite professors are more likely to possess?  Are they less likely to truckle to authority, play the game, self-servingly self-promote, cut their agenda to fit the fashions, or neglect teaching for scholarship?  Do qualities of wisdom and common sense correlate better to the non-elite sectors of the academy than the elite sectors?  Again, these positive thoughts might be comforting and might sometimes be true, but I doubt there is such a correlation.  And yet I wonder whether it isn't a mistake to assume that the difference between elite and non-elite professors is just one of linear progression, and whether we might reflect productively on what distinct qualities each of these sectors of the academy, to the extent they actually exist, possess.

Your comments, as always, are welcome, even those of the general professor-bashing variety.  Needless to say, this is one of a series: when I'm safely ensconsed in an elite school, I'll be sure to put up a post explaining why elite professors really are like other professors, only much, much better, and maybe one also on why, pace Bainbridge, we actually should accord greater respect to the opinions of elite professors, on every subject.                

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 22, 2007 at 01:58 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Any Professor (elite, non-elite, non-elite visiting an elite institution) is an elite in the eyes of their students (who pay the Professor's salary) if they grade and return exam's in a timely manner. Say, within six weeks of the exam!

Posted by: Bison 1 | Jan 23, 2007 1:24:39 PM

Is Professor Bainbridge an "elite" academic merely by virtue of teaching at a top 20 law school (UCLA)? Or is he claiming to have regularly interacted with elite professors merely by working at UCLA (and before that some other school "ranked in the top 25"), and if so, where does he draw the cut-off point? Does this matter?

I think it might. I think there are bound to be some professors at Emory, Vanderbilt, Southern California, Iowa, or whichever top 25 school you like whose scholarship simply isn't very good. (I'm not accusing Bainbridge of being one of these. I don't know how good his work is.)

If Tribe, Balkin, and Amar agree on a constitutional law issue, yes, I'm "inclined to favor that view." If Posner and Epstein hold a shared view on an issue of tort, why wouldn't I be inclined to favor that view?

But if Posner and Epstein are of similar opinions on linear algebra or multivariable calculus, I'm no more inclined to favor that view than I am that of any other fairly smart nonmathematician. If the top Miltonists from Berkeley and Harvard think that political question doctrine is a mess, they may well be right, but there are reasons to think that they wouldn't fairly deserve to be considered persuasive authority as Tribe/Balkin/Amar might.

Posted by: anonanon | Jan 22, 2007 9:30:15 PM

Bainbridge's point is best understood in the context of the right-wing talking point that The Liberal Professoriat is inappropriately cramming The Liberal Agenda down students' throats. If we accept that flawed premise, the next rhetorical move is to ask whether, say, English profs have particularly acute insights about current U.S. politics.

If we reject that premise, the line, "[i]f all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view" looks more like a strawman. Substitute any other profession or group for "professors" and the answer should be "no" -- unless maybe the group is committed to supporting a cause you already support, and the view was related to that cause.

Further demonstrating that this is about modern politics, I strongly doubt that Bainbridge would really be "inclined to be skeptical" about the views of, say, physics profs about quarks, or early modern French historians as to which policies Henri IV favored.

On the other question, does "elite" mean some combination of good teaching and good scholarship? Talking about those attributes would be more productive than debating "elite" -- a loaded a word in this overly-hierarchical profession.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jan 22, 2007 4:19:19 PM

Depends on whether you mean elite in terms of position or quality. If you mean elite in terms of position, then the defining characteristic of being an elite professor is having the credentials to get hired at an elite institution. If you mean elite in terms of quality, that's harder, but I suspect the defining characteristic is academic creativity. When I look at the scholars in my field who really stand out, the common theme is an ability to say something engaging and different. The very best are able to say something new and different that also comes across as clearly correct. At least in my field, the people who have these qualities do tend to be at elite institutions, but not all of the people in my field who are at elite institutions have these qualities.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Jan 22, 2007 2:57:39 PM

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