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Monday, February 19, 2007

Faculty Self-Government and the Problem Colleague

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous has sent along the following query, and it seems to dovetail nicely with my recent post on the life of the university, so here goes:

Here at [a state law school], we have a professor who has become an embarrassment.  Students complain not just about his/her teaching style, but that s/he usually shows up for classes late or not at all.  Several recent exam have had to be thrown out (and students assigned a “Pass”) because of various exam-procedure and grading irregularities.  The faculty member has a long history of unpleasant behavior directed at all constituents of the law school, so few have complained about his/her various other failures to participate in faculty life.

I do not know what action, if any the law school administration has taken.  Regardless, I’d like to solicit the opinion of Prawfsblawg readers:  Is there a role for faculty to play when one of their own gets way out of line?  On the one hand, I believe this is usually handled administratively.  On the other hand, however, it seems to me that if faculty self-governance means anything, it should extend to the faculty policing itself.  Any thoughts?

Let me emphasize that this anecdote doesn't come from the schools I'm currently or imminently affiliated with.  Let me also say that I wouldn't post this for the sake of gossip, but such circumstances are not unknown at most schools, and the questioner raises a perfectly valid question about the role of other faculty members in such situations.  Finally, although most people in the academy know and can point to members of this type, at their own or other institutions, let me urge a touch of compassion and humility, and point out that we cannot always know the reason such events occur.  In some cases, a dramatic departure from useful participation in teaching and faculty life may be the result of serious illness, family losses, substance abuse problems, and other personal factors, or simply part of diminution that often accompanies aging.  Of course, students and faculty are entitled to expect all faculty to retain at least a minimal adherence to common standards of professionalism, and faculty certainly ought not let students bear the weight of such situations.  But we still ought to seek the most compassionate resolution of such dilemmas, keeping in mind that there but for the grace of God may go each of us one day.

Please send in any comments or reactions you have; I'm sure the questioner, who I believe poses the question in good faith and without malicious intent, will be very grateful.  I've offered my thoughts after the jump.

Here's my own take.  First, and the questioner does not suggest otherwise, such matters are in the first instance matters for resolution by the law school/university administration, and I think that's appropriate and necessary.  So I don't take this to be a question about formal processes, which in any event should hardly mark the full compass of responses to such a situation. 

Second, if, as I have suggested, we think (or ought to think) of a university faculty as a largely self-governing institution entitled to some degree of autonomy from outside regulatory forces, then it is incumbent upon those of us who reside within these institutions to assume a great share of the burden in making sure those institutions function well and properly.  That burden not only involves taking care of matters related to research, scholarship, and big-picture institutional obligations, but also some degree of stewardship of the interests of students -- who, far more than other faculty, bear the burden of the teacher who departs dramatically from the standards of the institution.  Our care and concern for the welfare and autonomy of the teacher, our desire to avoid conflict or controversy, or our ability as faculty to get on with our own lives without being much interrupted by the problem faculty member, ought not tempt us to ignore the issue altogether and leave the students to bear the full costs of such situations.   

For the faculty, shouldering that burden might include, in this case, informal contacts with the faculty member him- or herself, especially when that colleague has real friends and peers on faculty, though the questioner suggests this won't be much of an option here.  It might include informal contacts with the administration itself, both because the administration can't begin any formal or informal processes until it knows there's a problem and because the other faculty members should take some of the burden of complaining off of students, who may well worry about approaching the administration with complaints about a longtime faculty member.  It might also gently include finding ways of offering alternatives for students within the subject matter taught by the "difficult" faculty member; that might be seen as undercutting the problem faculty member in a way that does raise academic freedom concerns, but it seems to me that our obligation to our students does demand some response here, especially where the teacher is teaching an important or required course.

Let me emphasize a couple of things.  First, the informal responses I've suggested are not just a way of saying that faculty should be out there saying, "Get rid of so-and-so."  As I said, there may be a host of reasons why a faculty member runs into difficulty, and as friends and colleagues we should be as concerned about addressing the underlying causes as we are with solving the problem.  Second, my advice would be incomplete without acknowledging that it is often difficult to engage in purely "informal" responses within a system that already has formal procedures in place; the two have a way of intertwining, and today's informal and gentle interlocutor ("Say, Prof. X, is everything OK with class Y?") may have a way of becoming tomorrow's formal process ("Petitioner further alleges that Prof. C attempted to coerce him/her into retirement, and repeated slanderous allegations to other faculty and students").  Third, I might point out that one advantage of having the administration address this issue rather than the faculty is the too-many-cooks problem, and the prospect that, once faculty start getting involved in every such issue, the faculty itself will become a hotbed of gossip, recrimination, etc.  That doesn't mean faculty shouldn't get involved -- again, especially because they have a duty to consider the students in this person's classroom -- but they should tread cautiously, eschew publicity or water-cooler talk, and generally funnel these issues through the administration, even if they play a key role in alerting the administration to the issues in the first place.

With that in mind, and keeping in mind also that formal processes have a way of either doing too little (for example, because they take a high level of conduct before they are triggered, and because everyone goes to great lengths not to trigger them) or too much (because they are then too Draconian and consuming once invoked), I conclude that (1) faculty have some kind of obligation to both their students and the faculty as a whole in such circumstances; (2) there are some informal steps they might take to respond to such situations, although they should be wary and circumspect in doing so; and (3) we should recognize that "problem faculty" are sometimes also "faculty with problems," and should therefore approach such situations with humility, compassion, and gentleness.

Again, I welcome others' thoughts.


Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 19, 2007 at 09:05 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I'm breaking my promise that my previous post would be my last just to say this. An argument -- about any subject -- along the lines of, "I don't dive into your studies because the plain facts are right in front of our eyes" is never going to convince anybody that doesn't already agree with you. I've worked with and studied unions, including teachers' unions, and the "plain facts" strike me as quite different than they strike you. That's why professionals do studies, and why people that want to debate the issue seriously read them. Again, I don't mean to suggest that every study done supports my point of view -- some don't. And it's good for me to know what's out there beyond my initial instincts.

Along those lines, it's simply untrue that teachers' unions "oppose merit pay" -- the AFT is on record as supporting some types of merit pay systems and opposing others. It's also true, despite your claims, that teachers' unions work on improving their own professional standards in a variety of ways. So it's helpful to figure out what's really going on, beyond your initial anecdotal impressions.

This really will be my last post on this; apologies to folks for getting so far off-topic.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Feb 22, 2007 5:31:13 PM


OK. This will be my last post, too.

Few teachers are fired for being incompetent, teachers' unions oppose merit pay, and since the unions have no hiring control, there are no standards they can enforce. That's what those unions do, and they do it very well.

I don't dive into your studies because the plain facts are right in front of our eyes. Either Honda has less skilled workers because they are non-union or they don't. If they don't, no study is going to change that fact.

I agree the auto industry is complicated, but you told us, "Union workers are typically more skilled and productive than their non-union counterparts.." So, that's what I am discussing. It seems fair to ask about the largest industrial sector where we have union plants and non-union plants.

And regarding those facts, do US non-union Honda plants have less skilled workers than unionized GM plants?

Thanks to all for the discussion. Signing off.

Posted by: Elliot | Feb 22, 2007 4:24:18 PM


This is my last response to you, because frankly, a statement like this -- "And those teachers? I'd say their unions do an exemplary job of keeping incompetents on the payroll. That's what they do" -- is just an uninformed, ideologically driven talking point.

If you want to get beyond the Fox News talking head stance and get into the many studies on the subject, you could start with this: Steelman Powell and Carini, "Teacher Unions Hinder Educational Performance? Lessons Learned from State SAT and ACT Scores," _Harvard Education Review_ (Winter 2000) (students with unionized teachers scored higher on standardized tests and were more likely to graduate from high school).

As to the auto industry, the issue is a lot more complicated than the way you put it, "who is employing more skilled people." And yeah, you have to "dive into studies," including studies of the auto industry, to understand the role that unions and a whole lot of other factors play. If you're not interested in doing that, you're not interested in having an informed debate on the topic. Which is fine, but don't try to pass off inaccurate stereotypes as "facts."

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Feb 22, 2007 2:24:10 PM


We have dragged things off topic. But rather than dive into all the studies you cite, let's just answer the question. Are US Honda plants employing less skilled people than unionized GM plants? Is Honda at a disadvantage to GM because GM has unionized plants. I really can't think of a better example of industrial unions than auto plants. If studies are not confirmed by real experience in a large industry, is there much reason to read them?

But, construction is a great example. The Project Labor Agreement expired in 1986 at the Prudhoe Bay Alaska oil fields. Prior to that it was a unionized job with union construction workers. There was so much work the Alaska unions couldn't man the job, so rather than expand their membership, they invited union travellers from other states to come to Alaska and take the jobs. Alaskans who did not belong to the unions were shut out in favor of the folks from Louisiana.

So, did the unions deliver a better product? The simple answer is a resounding "No." After the expiration of the PLA, productivity increased because non-union contractors did not have to employ as many people. The union workers had paced the job and enforced a cap on productivity. The non-union workers faced no such cap, and there was no problem finding qalified non-union hands. So, the job had fewer hands and higher productivity.

The companies trying to open Alaska for future production will no doubt support a new PLA. This is because they want the Democratic support in Washington that the unions can deliver, not because the union hands do a better job. So, if Congress approves ANWR the unions will exhaust the Fairbanks locals, call other union locals in Texas and Louisiana, and load up the job with their people. But, the companies figure it's better to open ANWR with unions than not to open it at all.

And those teachers? I'd say their unions do an exemplary job of keeping incompetents on the payroll. That's what they do.

Posted by: Elliot | Feb 22, 2007 1:15:41 PM


Respectfully, we've dragged this post sufficiently off topic already. I've given multiple cites to multiple studies -- most of which did concern the U.S., today or in fairly recent years -- and your reply seems to be, "but that's now how I see the U.S. car industry." If you're really interested in this issue -- and I think more people should be -- I encourage you to dive into this literature. There are some studies that fail to find a positive correlation between unions and productivity, and if that's what you want to read about, see Barry Hirch's work. But there is a significant amount of evidence the other way. It's way too much to try to summarize on an unrelated Prawfsblog thread.

To get back to the point of the original thread, it's a false stereotype to imagine that "unionized industrial workers" routinely and automatically defend their members no matter how incompetent, while "professional organizations" act according to higher standards.

I'll leave you with this. In answer to your question about industries in which unionized workers are higher-skilled and more productive, see the construction industry. Also, studies repeatedly show that, after adjusting for types of students, students have higher overall scores on standardized tests and have higher graduation rates in schools with unionized teachers

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Feb 22, 2007 10:28:43 AM

I think Paul has it about right -- certainly on the basic points that faculty members have obligations to students and to each other and these issues need to be handled sensitively. I'm not as pessimistic as Patrick about faculty members' conflict of interest, maybe because I tend to be more hopeful about their sense of fiduciary obligations to their students and each other.

My own view is that administrators have little power to affect professors' conduct, at least using the standard carrots and sticks. The simple fact is that the job and salary security provided by tenure takes away a lot of leverage. Administrators can nibble around the edges of a professor's perks, but the basics are secure. And because the basics are secure, such nibbling only runs the risk of creating resentment that will lead to a larger problem, which again (short of egregious misconduct) can't be remedied -- except by more nibbling which starts the cycle again. And of course nobody would want to punish a troublemaker by giving her even more responsibilities -- that just creates a different problem when there's non/malfeasance.

Again, though, the positive side of the story is the informal pressure (and assistance) colleagues can try to provide. It's certainly the case that a problem colleague may be relatively immune from such influence, but since a lot (most?) offenders still put some stock in their self-perception as a member of a collegial group I wouldn't dismiss out of hand the possibility that intervention by colleagues can do good in a fair number of cases.

Posted by: Bill Araiza | Feb 21, 2007 9:47:28 PM


Unions may very well have beneficial effects on productivity, but I suggest that is also a function of the state of the economy into which the union is introduced. We must watch the contnued effect of the union as it matures with the economy. What was once a positive effect on productivty has often proven to become a negative. Unfortunately, American industry s not experiencing what your citings claim.

However, I was dealing with the US today. I'll leave other countries and economies for another time. And while the unions freqently claim their members are more skilled than non-members doing the same job, that is very difficult to demonstrate today in the US.

I posed a few simple questions: Does Honda have a lower level of worker skill? Are Honda plants less productive than unionized GM plants? If your contentions are correct, we would have to conclude the Honda plant is at a significant disadvantage to GM. Is it?

And while unions make the unfounded claim their members are individually more skilled, they rarely make the claim a union job has fewer hands than a non-union job. That's because of all the helpers, apprentices, and work rules that come with the union.

American car makers currently have a significant problem competing with the Japanese on auto interiors. The interiors are more labor intensive than other parts of the car. Robots do not do carpeting and upholstery well. But, they have to design the interiors around the union work rules. The designs themselves cannot compete with the designs at the Honda plant because the unionized work force can't do the job.

I'd be interested in actual areas of the US economy where you see the union worker as more skilled, and the union as a positive factor in productivity.

Posted by: Elliot | Feb 21, 2007 8:38:00 PM


Please go beyond stereotypes. There is in fact a considerable literature on productivity and union membership, and while there are differing opinions, it's fair to characterize the majority of the studies as showing that unions often improve productivity.

A few examples/cites follow. A World Bank report based on more than 1,000 studies on the effects of unions found that countries with high unionization rates tend to have higher productivity and lower unemployment. Freeman and Medoff’s _What do Unions Do?_ concludes that unionized firms are often more productive than non-union establishments. A recent survey of the literature found “scant evidence” that unions reduce productivity and “substantial evidence” that they improve productivity in many industries. Another survey similarly noted that most analyses have found that unions improve firm performance.

Cites: World Bank, Unions and Collective Bargaining: Economic Effects in a Global Environment (2002), available at: http://publications.worldbank.org/ecommerce/catalog/product?item_id=1061824; Richard Freeman and James Medoff, What Do Unions Do? (1984); Dale Belman and Richard Block, The Impact of Collective Bargaining on Competitiveness and Employment: A Review of the Literature, in Richard Block, ed., Bargaining for Competitiveness: Law Research and Case Studies (2003), 45-74 Lawrence Mishel with Matthew Walters, How Unions Help All Workers (2003) available at: http://www.epinet.org/content.cfm/briefingpapers_bp143.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Feb 21, 2007 4:32:39 PM


Consider union and non-union auto plants in the US. Which are more productive? Does Honda have a lower level of worker skill? Are Honda plants less productive than unionized GM plants?

In some other areas, an individual union member may be more skilled, but union rules mandating employment of apprentices and helpers reduce overall productivity. And the higher skill of an employee does nothing for productivity if work rules inhibit efficient and effective use of that skill set.

Paul/ Anon,

Engineers refuse to work with an incompetent, exclude work he has contributed, tell the boss he is a danger, the QA people reject it, and the professional engineer charged with approving the plans refuses to stamp his work. This quickly leads to reassignment to a role he can handle or dismissal. On project oriented jobs this often means simply letting the job come to an end and not including the guy on the next.

If academics do self-police themselves, then how do they do it? What is the mechanism? Perhaps that will answer the question posed by your correspondent. We might also ask a simple question: what is the product of the academic, is it evaluated, how is it evaluated, who evaluates it?

Posted by: Elliot | Feb 20, 2007 1:19:36 PM

Not to pile on to Elliot's post, but while his image of industrial union workers serves to make a contrast with his image of professionals, his image of union workers is an inaccurate stereotype. Union workers are typically more skilled and productive than their non-union counterparts, and in my experience, they do not mindlessly protect incompetent colleagues any more than, say, professional workers and their organizations do.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Feb 20, 2007 10:47:56 AM

Elliott, I generally share Anon's views, but I'd also come at your comment from the other side, and wonder if you are both too quick too assume that academics do *not* self-police, or police each other, and too quick to assume that other professionals *do* police themselves. Everyone who has written so far, including me, agrees that such a situation ought to be addressed, so no one is rejecting your suggestion that faculties, like other professional organizations, have an obligation to make sure that professional norms are being followed. And it is *generally* the case that, through a variety of informal and formal means, monitoring and, where appropriate, remedial action are taken in the university context -- maybe often enough, maybe not, but remedial actions in such circumstances are hardly exceptional in the academy. And again, you candidly acknowledge that profesionals -- engineers and so forth -- don't always do an adequate job of addressing similar problems, even in cases where the stakes are greater. And those failures happen for similar reasons to the ones addressed here: simple human nature, or organizational processes that discourage or obstruct efforts to alert others to the problem. The examples that come most readily to mind involve both space shuttle disasters.

Again, you have not suggested other professionals are absolutely perfect, and you haven't suggested that academic professionals never address such problems, and certainly nothing in my post said otherwise. So I think your closing suggestion that the academy has "left the ranks of the professionals" may not be strongly supported by the discussion in my post. Really, in both this case and the engineering and other cases you discuss, the question is the same: how should such remedial processes work, and where should responsibility reside -- in the administration, other faculty members, or both? That's the question my questioner was raising, and I assume that engineers, doctors, and institutional theorists grapple with it all the time.



Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 19, 2007 2:47:02 PM

Actually, Elliot paints an incomplete and not very realistic picture of how academics handle this issue at most schools. A lot depends upon exactly what is not working. Academics who don't do good committee work or aren't very collegial may be fine in the classroom and produce great scholarship. It may in fact be the highest and best use of them to leave them alone. Academics who are doing lousy in the classroom often are no longer given teaching assignments for required first year classes and sometimes are reassigned to non-teaching administrative positions, which, again, may be where they are best suited (there is one story of a professor being reassigned to a distance learning department - working content, but not actually having student contact). The same thing sometimes occurs with academics no longer writing, as they often are forced to take up extra administrative or teaching loads to make up the slack. Moreover, all of these deficiencies show up in reduced compensation, either through the non-receipt of summer research money, the non-assignment for plum summer teaching domestically or abroad, or the passing over for merit money and chairs/professorships. There are also some schools that impose financial penalties for certain transgressions involving students, most notably for failing to turn in grades on time. Finally, every school has professors retiring because of pressure from the administration or because the individuals themselves recognize that the failing performance is a signal they need to stop.

One problem is that it's difficult to substantiate failing teaching performance that falls just short of egregious. Student evaluations may decline because a senior professor has maintained a strict Socratic style, an inflexible grading and assignment standard, and has not kept up with technological aids (e.g., Power Point or posting notes online) that students have come to expect. Her teaching evaluations may have declined as a result, even though, substantively, she may still be a good teacher for the student willing to put in the work.

Professors also do police themselves more than you think, but the problem is that they are often the last to know of a problem since they don't attend the classes. When rumors spread of issues, though, they warn away students from certain professors, either explicitly or implicitly by recommending other classes or other professors.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 19, 2007 2:32:03 PM

I would suggest the school look to the example of other professionals working in various organizations. Professionals police themselves. For example, in an engineering firm, how do the engineers deal with one of their own whose work has fallen below acceptable standards?

They do not hesitate in preventing the incomplete structural analysis from becoming part of the design for the bridge. They reject the inconclusive geological study. Nor do they hesitate in rejecting materials that do not meet specifications. To do otherwise is to put the lives of the public at risk, and to cheat the customer.

The primary concern here is the public, the customer, and their own profesional integrity. Things are not always perfect, but I assure you, the process I described goes on everyday all over the country. And the engineers who put forth such shoddy work? They get fired or laid off.

It appears the academics have turned things around a bit. Their primary concern is the academic. The shoddy product is of secondary importance. Professional integrity doesn't matter. The cheated students don't matter. The confidence of the public doesn't matter. Only the academic seems to matter.

The academics appear to have left the ranks of the professionals and joined the ranks of the unionized industrial workers. That's fine, nothing wrong with unions, but the academic should then be recognized as a union hand whose seniority rights trump any professional competence. The professions have left the academics behind. I am amazed they choose to stay there.

Posted by: Elliot | Feb 19, 2007 1:47:39 PM

That's an interesting scenario, where the faculty is interested in doing something, but the administration seems behind the ball.

I think the more usual problem would be simple conflict of interest. The faculty members have an interest in weak disciplinary norms, and a minimally confrontational work environment. Therefore, relying on them for informal disciplinary processes would be a poor decision. The "informal contacts" I would expect them to use would mostly cover things up. Say, by helping students who object to the problem professor move into other classrooms.

I think its better that faculty members limit themselves somewhat to simply notifying the proper authorities. Otherwise the system will start to rely on faculty intervention, and in my opinion, waiting around for meaningful intervention will, in most cases, just prolong the problem.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 19, 2007 10:16:02 AM

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