Monday, May 21, 2007

Why so many visiting professors?

A couple of faculty, including one Dean, wrote in to remark that the number of visitors at the top schools is double what it was 10-20 years ago.  The question is what explains this development?  My hypothesis is that the efforts by Harvard and Columbia to expand their faculties has created enormous pressure all the way down the "food chain" (compounded by the fact that Harvard occasionally raids Columbia, as well as many other top schools).  This has resulted in more lateral movement, and also more need for visiting stints to size up potential new faculty hires.

In addition, of course, there has been a general tendency towards reducing teaching loads and increasing research leaves, which no doubt creates curricular pressures.  Interdisciplinary hiring, which is particular pronounced at the very best law schools, also often creates curricular gaps that need to be filled with visitors who (imagine this!) can actually teach core substantive law courses. 

Do readers agree that there are more visiting professors now than 10 or 20 years ago?   If so, what explains this development?  Comments are open; as usual non-anonymous comments are far more likely to be approved.  Post only once; comments may take awhile to appear.

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I can't speak to all the schools, but looking at Harvard specifically the increase may have a lot to do with curricular changes. A number of the visitors on the list are visiting only for the 3-week January term. A winter visit is easier on professors than a whole semester or a full year. Given that the winter term is, I believe, a relatively recent innovation, that might explain some part of the rise (Stanford now has a winter term as well, I believe). In addition, several of the visitors are teaching only 1-credit reading groups, which are also easier on professors than full semester, 3 to 5 credit commitments. Again, it's my guess that reading groups were a less important part of the curriculum 20 years ago (to the extent that they even existed--i'm not sure), when students had many fewer elective choices.

So perhaps Harvard has more visitors now because it's a lot easier to get high-quality visitors to teach in the winter, or to teach 1-credit reading groups, and these are now a bigger part of the curriculum than they once were.

Posted by: HLS Student | May 22, 2007 9:24:48 PM

There may also be factors outside of the hiring committees involved here. E.g., it is a frequently lamented point that employees generally have shorter stints now than they did in the past, and perhaps law school employment is reflecting a similar trend. There are likely both general and law-school-specific reasons for such a trend. E.g., if it is the case that more and more law professors are part of two-wage-earner households, it may be a more frequent occurence these days that a professor seeks out (or becomes inclined to accept) a visiting position in order to accommodate a spouse's or partner's professional needs. Similarly, the costs of travel are lower now than 20 years ago (including both the cash costs and the pyschic costs -- consider how the relatively less dense patterns of family settlement reduce the burden of moving), and that likely makes visiting a more palatable option.

Also, to the extent that the various rankings may have become more important, it would not be surprising if that caused an increase in faculty movement.

Posted by: Craig Agule | May 23, 2007 3:44:51 PM

As I outline in my forthcoming article on the U.S. News rankings, a high volume of visitors can be accounted for in ways that artificially boost a school's reported expenditures per student -- effectively double-counting affected faculty slots. This, in turn, can give a significant boost to a law school's U.S. News ranking. There are, of course, other reasons to import or export visitors.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | May 29, 2007 3:21:40 PM

The Harvard winter term has been around for a long time, so that's not it. Harvard increased the number of first-year sections a few years ago to reduce class size; that requires more teachers of basic first-year classes, which in turn requires more faculty. In addition, in recent years, Harvard faced up to its ongoing wave of normal retirements, and started to make enough offers to keep the faculty from shrinking. That implies, of course, that the current turmoil will continue for a while.

Posted by: HLS Prof | May 30, 2007 4:01:11 PM

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