The Broken Windows of Law School Faculties

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I’ve discovered the Positive Coaching Alliance  through volunteering with my local youth Little League.  That organization uses the “broken windows” concept in training coaches, parents and players to take a holistic (my word, not theirs) approach to sports — as a source of competition, fun and important life lessons.  (More info on PCA is  here.)  One training session I attended included a segment devoted to “Creating and Maintaining a Positive Culture”:

This section assesses how to create a Positive Culture through “Setting the Table” (how to set coach, player, and parent expectations). Then we talk about the fact that, no matter how much prevention you do, you will always encounter problems, so you have to know how to intervene (we call this “Fixing broken windows”).

Setting expectations and encountering problems?  That sounds like the work of many law faculties.

The “Broken Windows” article by  James Q. Wilson  (now at Pepperdine’s School of Public   Policy) and  George L. Kelling  (Manhattan Institute,   Rutgers School of Criminal Justice) from the March 1982  Atlantic Monthly  famously linked  disorder  and  crime:

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police:and the rest of us:ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.

I’m not saying law faculties are like buildings (although at any given moment, we may think our own immovable).  I’m not suggesting that law professors are criminals (gee, I hope not).  And I acknowledge that the “broken windows” theory is subject to much criticism — popularly and recently in Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s 2005 book  Freakonomics  (see their blog of the same name  here).  Yet the broken windows theory makes intuitive sense to me in the context of law faculties.  I’ve written before (here) on the eroding effect of incivility on faculty morale (more colorfully described in the faculty appointments process by Ann here).  Every time a faculty member is hostile, rude, aggressive or unprofessional towards another, it hurts the whole faculty.  It’s a stone thrown at a window, to borrow the metaphor.  Even if we can say to ourselves, “Oh, that’s just Professor X acting how he/she always acts,” we need to remember that sometimes windows do break.

How do we fix the broken windows of law school faculties?  How do we make our faculty — our law school — a community without broken windows?   The nature (or smoke screens) of tenure and academic freedom, along with the independent spirit that most law professors have, make for very difficult work.  I will start with three suggestions:

1. Start faculty meetings on time.  Professors start classes on time.  Professors expect our students to come on time.  Why do some faculty members persist in showing up late to every meeting or presentation?  Why do faculty members delay meetings or presentations because we know colleagues won’t get there on time?

2. If a faculty member has tenure, she or he is estopped from proclaiming that untenured colleagues feel free to express their opinions.

3. Limit certain faculty members’ roles.  If a faculty member hasn’t written a law review article in x years [two? three? five? set the number in accordance with the school's institutional expectation...], then that professor should have no say in hiring, promotion or tenure. That faculty member definitely should not be permitted to opine on what constitutes “good” scholarship.  Fulfill some minimal expectations and then you can talk.

The first two suggestions are relatively mundane.  Acting on them might not make a quick difference in faculty culture.  But implementing a version of the third? Imagine the efficiencies.

-Bridget Crawford

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One Response to The Broken Windows of Law School Faculties

  1. Tony Infanti says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Neither of the first two suggestions are as mundane as you suggest and might make more of a difference than you think.

    On your first point, I’ve seen tenured faculty act in ways that they would never tolerate in a classroom. For example, I’ve actually heard tenured faculty say that they can’t make a regularly scheduled (months in advance) faculty meeting, so they want a committee whose work they are trying to impede to provide a written report to them (by e-mail with the entire faculty cc’d) in advance of the faculty meeting where an oral report is scheduled (so that they can stomp on it in a way that unnaturally amplifies their voice). How many of these faculty members do you think would tolerate a request from a student for a copy of their lecture notes (in advance of class, no less!) when they can’t make a regularly scheduled class session?

    On your second point, I’ve heard tenured faculty make just such proclamations about untenured folk’s ability to express themselves–and it usually comes from the ones who do the most to stifle free expression among anyone who disagrees with them, whether tenured or untenured.

    I would add one more suggestion, though: Anyone with the protection of tenure who refuses to speak their mind at a faculty meeting for fear of disagreeing with their friends (and, believe me, I have heard someone say just that at a faculty meeting) should be asked (forced?) to retire to make way for someone who deserves the protection that tenure affords.

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