Friday, January 16, 2015

Criteria for awarding endowed chairs or professorships?

Reader Gerard Ambreson writes:

In your capacity of chief commentator on legal education, perhaps you could provide your thoughts on your blog on named professorships/chairs. Some questions it would be interesting to see you address:

What should the criteria for awarding chairs be?  For example, should schools take into account things besides scholarship, such as other contributions to the school, like excellent teaching or service?  Is it appropriate to consider non-legal writings for chairs in law schools?  See, for example, St. John's Law School's Reverend Joseph T. Tinnelly, C.M., Professor of Law, Lawrence Joseph, who may be better known for his poetry than his writing on legal matters?

My impression is that criteria vary with school and often with the particular endowment--many schools have named positions to recognize excellent teaching, for example.

Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice | Permalink


Brian: Did you have to include the sentence fragment "[i]n your capacity of chief commentator on legal education . . .? :) (Happy birthday, by the way).

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Jan 16, 2015 11:03:14 AM

Yes, certainly criteria vary with school. Barring specific criteria attached either to the professorship or applicable to the school, I think it important to reward professorships principally on the basis of meaningful academic accomplishment, recognized by leading professors in the field. Typically, outside evaluations would be helpful to confirm this stature. Some law schools use a committee for this evaluative purpose; others rely on the dean and provost to make this assessment. As I have managed this process at two law schools, I value the input of other chairholders at the law school and also rely on peer review, some gathered formally through letters, and other informally. Awarding of a chair/professorship is certainly an important event and it behooves the institution to have a fair and thorough process to ensure that these honors are adroitly administered.

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Jan 16, 2015 11:08:46 AM

Criteria certainly vary by school and even by chair. Some are subject-matter restricted, others are open; some schools emphasize scholarship; others don't, and try to give them to more or less every senior professor, if they have enough of the chairs to go around. Some chairs come with a lot of money, some come with very little. And so on. Lots of diversity in practice. I think a more interesting question is whether chairs should be granted "for life" or should be term-limited. My sense is that most chairs are either formally permanent, or that periodic reviews of chairs for performance are pro forma and rarely lead to chairs being taken away and redistributed. Permanent chairs provide better retention/hiring incentives, of course, but at the risk of tying up a chair in someone who ends up not performing at a high level on whatever the initial criteria happened to be (if that is something that we expect a chair-holder to do; that is, if the chair is not just a reward for past performance, but comes with an expectation of high-level future performance, which it need not). My understanding of UVA's practice is that all chairs expire after something like 3 or 5 years, and cannot be held by the same person for consecutive terms. But UVA has, I believe, so many chairs that faculty deserving of chairs are more or less ensured of getting a new one. On the other hand, the automatic-termination practice allows chairs to be relatively easily recycled from less-productive to more-productive faculty. My own school has recently developed a rotating one-year chair; we haven't implemented it yet, and so I don't know the details of how it will work, but it promises to be an interesting experiment (though my initial thought is that one year seems pretty short).

Posted by: Jason Yackee | Jan 18, 2015 11:21:52 AM

I suspect that the biggest difference in approach has to do with how many chair there are to go around. Some schools use named chairs as a fundraising tool, and when there are lots of chairs they sometimes go to untenured people. Some schools use chairs as a recruitment tool -- reaching out to hire senior people into well-funded chairs. At some schools with lots of chairs, it ends up looking like a seniority system in which everyone, or most everyone, at some point gets a chair. Some schools use an informal process of consultation among faculty before deciding on (or at least announcing) a chair. I agree with Dan that a fair and well thought out process is important.

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Jan 18, 2015 2:16:29 PM

I am not at Virginia, so could be off, but I am reasonably certain that, apropos of Jason's comment, UVA has two different types of chairs. Some indeed are rotating (we have such chairs as well), but others are awarded in perpetuity -- or at least for very long periods. At our law school, there is a university driven rule requiring renewal after a set period. Barring unusual circumstances, these chairs will continue with the faculty incumbent. Mary puts her finger on a key matter: Some of the policy will be driven by the availability of chairs. To the best of my knowledge, every tenured member of the Texas faculty held a named professorship. Chairs, however, were awarded in more specific circumstances. (Brian and I were honored to hold such chairs during our tenure at UT). At other law schools, the scarcity of chairs drives specially configured protocols and strategies.

BL COMMENT: Texas had two tiers of endowed positions, named "professorships" and named "chairs." Texas was in the unusual position of having more named professorships and chairs than faculty!

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Jan 19, 2015 9:39:04 AM

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