Becker & Posner:

weigh in on the Summers resignation. Posner here and Becker here. Posner's post is especially interesting.

anonymous coward:
Posner has a couple interesting points, but I was particularly intrigued by the following claim: "It is ludicrous for English professors to think they have a useful contribution to make to decisions involving budgetary allocations, building programs, government relations, patent policy, investment decisions, and other key dimensions of modern university governance."

Would that be as ludicrous as a law professor thinking he has something to say about literary criticism, Judge Posner?
2.26.2006 5:57pm
Raw_Data (mail):
Posner is indulging in "infantilism" by using fancy terms like "budgetary allocations" for something simple like "Where should we spend the money?"

He is trying to make value judgments (literally) into something which requires "technical" expertise.

His arrogance appears to know no bounds. I imagine that soon he will suggest that ordinary citizens should not be able to vote on bond issues because what do they know about "budgetary allocations?"

Had Posner been President of Harvard I suspect that he would have not lasted even as long as Summers.
2.26.2006 6:22pm
Commenterlein (mail):
Posner knows an incredible amount of stuff, and his productivity scares me.

Having said that, he writes on approximately three times as many topics as he knows anything about, and his knowledge of economics is stuck somewhere on the level of a first year graduate course. The last trait he shares with many in the law and econ crowd. In any case, he certainly does not appear to be good judge about who has useful things to say about what subject.
2.26.2006 6:29pm
Aaron Bergman (mail):
All the Summers stuff aside, both Becker and Posner come out (pretty much) for the abolition of tenure.

Why on earth would anyone go through the hell that it takes to get an academic job if there wasn't some hope for tenure at the end of the whole game? I can't help but think that if tenure were abolished, there would be a large decrease in the number of people pursuing an academic career.
2.26.2006 6:59pm
jgshapiro (mail):
Why on earth would anyone go through the hell that it takes to get an academic job if there wasn't some hope for tenure at the end of the whole game?
Maybe the solution isn't the abolition of tenure, but the weakening of tenure.

Compare a tenured prof to a law firm partner. The latter has substantial job security, but not absolute job security. It is certainly possible to force unproductive partners to retire and many law firms do. It seems less possible to force unproductive tenured professors to retire.

The goal should be to provide some job security, but not too much. I don't know how you weaken tenure without destroying it, but perhaps it's worth a shot.
2.26.2006 7:07pm
Zywicki (mail):
I flagged Posner's discussion because it struck me that he is essentially correct in his discussion of the inefficiencies and conflicts of interest of treating faculties as the residual claimants of an institution's long-term value.
2.26.2006 7:21pm
Fishbane (mail):
One thing I've noticed about lawyers is that they have a definite tendency to think they know more about economics than they really do. (I'm not singling anyone out, and there are certainly exceptions to the rule - I'm talking about a general tendency toward hubris effecting the profession.)

This becomes especially pronounced at times when they apply themselves to policy questions aimed at steering behaviour towards general goals.
2.26.2006 7:49pm
Raw_Data (mail):
Hey, I think Posner is brilliant and all that and by no means woulod I personally argue for tenure, for instance, which is a form of the claim on residual value. But the standards by which university faculty are chosen are absurdly narrow. Though that's no different than any other institution.

The real problem with his approach is that it ignores the notion of -- uh -- "collegiality" and assumes hierarchy, as if the university is still part of The Church. Why for example should "the boss" -- the university president -- be able to trump the hiring decisions of faculty expert in their own area? Why, for example, should not the business school faculty -- turning around Posner's standard of expertise yield power -- be the ones to run the place? They know accounting and marketing and "budgetary allocation." Shouldn't the architecture school be in charge of campus planning?
2.26.2006 7:57pm
Guest2 (mail):
Judge Posner is smart enough that I would be interested in at least hearing what he has to say on any topic. He frequently causes me to think about familiar things in new ways. As for his knowledge of economics -- I'm not an economist either, but I think it's significant that a lot of economists (such as Becker) find what he has to say valuable.

Of his specific points regarding Harvard, I fear that he's correct in predicting that the Corporation's failure to back Summers will make it harder for the University to recruit an imaginative and vigorous President.
2.26.2006 8:56pm
snowball (mail):
Of his specific points regarding Harvard, I fear that he's correct in predicting that the Corporation's failure to back Summers will make it harder for the University to recruit an imaginative and vigorous President.

I doubt that the job of Harvard president will be any less attractive than it was before Summers resigned. It was understood to be a difficult job during the last search that landed Summers the presidency. And I would guess that most prospective candidates will think that the key lesson of the Summers affair is "don't be a blatant jerk to so many people at the same time." Anyone who's ever had a role in academic administration will know how to deal with that lesson.
2.26.2006 9:05pm
Jim Hu:
I know we're all supposed to kowtow to Posner's intellect, but this piece struck me as not very impressive (I left a trackback elaborating on this). I think Becker demolishes the worker cooperative analogy, and even if tenure was to be abolished in Posner's fantasy world, the tenured faculty at Harvard are like the high-priced free agents on the Red Sox. The owners aren't going to let the GM just fire them and they have no-trade clauses in their long-term contracts. So they'll have tenure in effect even if it's not called that.

But what I really don't get is the basis for both Becker and Posner being so high on Summers as a Univ. President. Posner:

"the most exciting and dynamic president that Harvard has had since James Conant"

Becker (quoting himself from a year ago):

"If allowed to persist in his endeavors, he will go down as one of the great university presidents of recent decades."

Conant changed the nature of Harvard and of higher education in general. Summers... am I missing something? What was the vision? The press accounts say stuff like "new emphasis on undergraduates" and "expansion into Allston"...this seems like a pretty pale shadow to lead to comparisons with Conant. Has any university president anywhere ever had a vision that didn't involve emphasizing undergraduates and expanding into new real estate? Increasing the financial aid budget is admirable...but visionary?
2.26.2006 9:40pm
Fishbane (mail):
Conant changed the nature of Harvard and of higher education in general. Summers... am I missing something? What was the vision?

I think the vision was, well, much of what was being morned in the pieces referenced. Some wanted Harvard to be a model of moving Uni to a mode of operation and education different than it now is. Read carefully, and goals become clear.
2.26.2006 10:05pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I didn't necessarily read the Posner was suggesting that law professors / judges were better at budgeting and finance than English profs, but rather that the later typically had no training in it whatsoever. Obviously, neither do many judges and law profs. I do think though that Summers probably did have a bit more expertise there than did most of the Harvard FAS.

As to his suggestion that chairmen be appointed by the president instead of the faculty of the department, he does make a good point - that mediocre faculty are more likely to hire mediocre faculty. This makes logical sense to me - after all, why should a faculty department hire someone who is going to put all the rest of them to shame?

The other thing that I didn't see him mention is that if a chairman is dependent upon a vote of his department for his chair, I would think him less likely to crack down on them. You would seem to end up with departments being laws unto themselves. And if a majority implicitly agree to screw off, then there is nothing that anyone could do about it.

Combine this with Posner's suggestion that faculties' viewpoint is much shorter than that hopefully of the trustees. My impression of academia is that many faculty slow down as they get older, publishing less and teaching less. Thus, the older faculty would seem to have an incentive to elect weak chairmen, since it often takes decades to seriously upgrade departments (due to tenure), and by then, they will be gone. So, even if hiring strong applicants would improve a department in the long run and make those others in that department look good because of it, this is long term, and many of the faculty won't be around for the results, but, rather, benefit now from lighter work loads and weaker colleagues.
2.26.2006 10:08pm
Summers's predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, was an English professor before he became president of Harvard. So surely Posner is guilty of overstatement when he writes, "It is ludicrous for English professors to think they have a useful contribution to make to , , , modern university governance."
2.26.2006 10:44pm
Aaron Bergman (mail):
Actually, in my experience, genereally nobody wants to be department chairman. It's considered a thankless job that takes time away from research.

The idea that departments seek out weaker applicants also strikes me as quite bizarre.
2.26.2006 10:53pm
Unless the position of department chair at Harvard is different than it is everywhere else, it involves a lot of extra administrivia and has no benefits of any substance. It probably gets passed around like a hot potato.
2.26.2006 10:54pm
Seems like Harvard is finally getting smarter Hopefully they'll be able to find someone this time who isn't a neocon.
2.26.2006 11:41pm

One thing I've noticed about lawyers is that they have a definite tendency to think they know more about economics than they really do.

Your experience must be limited if you have only noticed this with respect to lawyers and economics.


Let's see, how did those two sayings go....

Academic politics are so vicious because so little is at stake.

Nothing dies harder than academic prejudice.
2.27.2006 12:16am
Seattle Man:
is summers really a "neo-con?"
2.27.2006 1:10am
Aaron Bergman (mail):
I can't imagine any useful sense in which Summers is a neocon. The comment seemed like a troll to me.
2.27.2006 1:16am
No, Aaron, I am not a troll. I read a long, interesting article on Summers yesterday on a news site, stating that he was a neocon who believed in globalization. The article stated that was one of the reasons that those who objected to his Presidency held that position. I will try to find that article and post a link to it here.
2.27.2006 3:01am
frankcross (mail):
It's actually the neolibs who believe more in globalization.
2.27.2006 9:57am
geoff manne (mail):
You might be interested in my comments along similar lines from last week over at TOTM.
2.27.2006 12:47pm
Bill Korner (mail):
The Posner comment does not evaluate Summers' role in the ousting of the Dean of Arts and Sciences. Maybe his organizational theory does not have anything to say about the role of such a "division head" in the corporate enterprise that is higher education, but if it does have something to say it would be nice to know what.

Generally, Posner seems sympathetic to the political institutions of a public corporation. But most people would not defend them as political institutions for a state. Indeed they are often criticized as illiberal or worse. So much more argument is needed as to why they suit a university, even if we were to take for granted that they are optimal for whatever it is that we expect public corporations to do. (I do not take this for granted.)

Posner's points about employee loyalties may be well taken and yet still amount to a (partial) indictment rather than defense of the form of organization he favors. If the politics of corporations (or universities or, for that matter, countries) are such that employees or citizens are uninterested in the enterprise beyond what they can personally get from it, then that fact (on its own) speaks badly of the form of organization. It seems reasonable to expect that an optimal form of organization would be one in which the participants have something at stake besides their own narrowly defined self-interest. This is likely true, on the one hand, because there is some intrinsic good being a part of a project that you support instead of merely treating as a necessary means to your earning a living, teaching the subject you love, etc. It's also likely true because commitment to the goals of an organization is prima facie conducive to furthering those goals better.

As for shareholders, they face well known collective problems that prevent them from disciplining management. The trustees are, Posner says, analogous to the board. But there are no shareholders in a public corporation such as Harvard (as Posner acknowledges). So the analogy breaks down or is complicated in a way that requires further explanation.

Posner refers to the supposed incapacity of university faculties for collective action. But this also might be an apt criticism that cuts against rather than supporting his point. Perhaps other faculties should be engaged in cooperative research to the extent that (Posner says) hard science faculties are. Perhaps there are defects in the organization of universities that are preventing this. Also, why should we believe that academics supposed incapacity for working together on research implies that they cannot effectively participate in university governance? No arguments were offered there.

Also, West's absenteeism was not Summer's only beef with him. It may not have been the most important factor in his criticism of West. Nor, if accurate, was it as controversial a criticism as Summers' disapproval of West's extracurricular activities.

I reluctantly agree that Summers' ousting was unfortunate. Not that I share his attitude toward West or women in science. I share neither. But I think that universities do need to have difficult conversations and that certain orthodoxies are, in fact, functioning as band-aids that cover up issues in great need of discussion.
2.27.2006 5:10pm