In Defence of the Professoriate

February 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The funding of post-secondary education is a hot topic in Quebec. One of the suggestions I sometimes hear is that universities should pay professors less. We should, in other words, make the professors pay for the budget cuts. Professors are certainly an easy target given their high level of compensation and low level of professional obligations. We should, however, not forget the important social good that professors contribute and how cutting professor compensation could harm this social good.

Professors seem to be well compensated. Universities pay their tenured professors a good salary (at McGill for example the median salary for an associate professor is $110,633) for modest teaching duties (I believe a 3/3 course load is common at research universities, which translates to nine hours per week lecturing plus tutorials, preparation time, marking, and office hours) and research, for which professors are unsupervised and free to pursue their interests. Not to mention that professors have summers off and sabbaticals every six years.

If professor compensation goes down, I doubt that tenured faculty would be affected. One of trends over the past ten to twenty years that most people outside of academia are probably unaware of is the rise of adjunct faculty:

Although college costs are out of control, the money isn’t going to the professors. There are 1.5 million university professors in the US and , 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever. And earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work (http://goo.gl/verfN).

It has gotten so bad that some professors are now recommending that even their good students not pursue the PhD (http://goo.gl/U3g8a). The numbers might not be as bad in Quebec as they are in the United States. It would nonetheless be fair to assume that if universities cut compensation to professors, the cuts will come not in the form of reduced pay to already tenured faculty but by replacing tenured positions with adjunct positions when older faculty retire.

This paints a bleak picture for young academics, but why should Quebec society care? We should care because professors produce something of great social value: research. This is not to say that professors should be forced to pursue only socially valuable research. It is very difficult to predict in advance what research will be socially valuable. Research has the most social value when it results from intelligent people pursuing their interests rather than when research programs are dictated top-down to meet some social goal. I also do not want to say that the work of every professor will be socially valuable. Research  has fat tails. Most research will not have social value. But a few results will have huge payoffs for society that will more than justify the investment.

The phenomenon of adjunct faculty has two important negative consequences for society. In the first place, it is a waste of human capital. Adjuncts rarely have the time or resources to pursue their research. Yet if the professor has gotten his PhD at a publicly funded university, we as a society have already invested a great deal in his education. It is a waste to not make use of that education to produce research. We also risk not attracting the best people to academia in the first place. From the point of view of someone considering an academic career today, the salary of tenured professors is not the main concern. The main concern is the difficulty of finding a decent job after graduation. There is no doubt that many bright people are already not going into academia because of the uncertainty. If there is a significant risk of not getting a tenure track job, many of the best people will pursue careers in other fields. If we cannot attract the best people into academia, if being a professor is not a real option for the brightest students, the quality of research will go down and we will lose the value of having people dedicating their lives to research.

Quebec has some difficult decisions to make about who should pay for its post-secondary education system. Before making the professors pay, though, we should remember the long run costs of doing so.

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The Nature of Law and Authority

February 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Usually the nature of law debate is framed as an ontological debate. It is supposed to be about what the law is. But lately I’ve been wondering if the different positions philosophers take in the nature of law debate stem not from different intuitions about what the law is but about authority.

Positivists say that the law is those rules that emanate from the proper sources,  such as the legislature or a judge. For positivism, it is agents of the state who have authority. They have the authority to alter the legal relations between citizens, and they have this authority because it has been transfered to them.

For natural law theorists, the law is authoritative because it coincides with moral rules that are binding on people anyway. The authority of the law derives from the authority of morality.

For Dworkin, the authority of the law stems from tradition. Admittedly, Dworkin is not often read in this way. But on Dworkin’s theory the law is the best interpretation of the existing legal materials and institutions. This means that the authority of the law derives from the tradition of law, which contains those legal materials and institutions.

Each of these positions has a paradigmatic kind of law. For positivists, it’s is statutory law. For natural law theorists, it is certain aspects of criminal law, constitutional law, and  procedure (e.g., audi alteram partem). And for Dworkin, it’s the common law or the civil law (even with codification, though this is a more complicated story to tell).

Some of these positions also have corresponding advocates in Roman law. Natural law theorists are represented by Gaius and Ulpian, at the beginning of the Corpus Iuris Civilis. And Dworkin’s tradition based view is that of the Roman jurists more generally. For the jurists, the source of authority for Roman law stemmed from the Twelve Tables, and the Twelve Tables themselves were merely a writing down of what had always been done. So the authority of Roman law was tradition. If the jurists wanted to adapt the law, they had to frame it as an interpretation of the legal materials they had at hand because that was where they got their authority.

There doesn’t seem to me to be an analogue of positive law in Roman law. Praetorian law doesn’t count, because even the Praetor had to frame his modifications to the law as interpretations, so even his authority stemmed from tradition. Positive law is really a product of the development of states, codification, and the modern predominance of legislative law over common and civil law. Positivism is the most modern theory of law and authority.

I don’t think it even makes sense to think of the authority to make law within the conceptual framework of the Roman jurists. For that, you need the idea of rights as powers that can be transferred from citizen to state, which Roman jurists did not have. More on that another time.

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