Search the Lounge


« The Truth About Exam Grading (in four-part harmony) | Main | Representative King's Investigation and the Ghost of Hearings Past »

March 08, 2011


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Hi Kim,
I think you make a solidly persuasive case. As you say, real life examples are seldom so extreme, but the point is sound.
Dan Joyner

Matt Bodie

One definitional question: are chairs always paid for entirely by the donation? I had assumed that at many schools, the chair donation pays for some excess amount above and beyond a normal salary, but that the school pays for the basic faculty line. That may not always (or ever) be the case -- I'm not sure. But even if salary is completely taken care of, the endowment may not pay for benefits like health care or pension. And then there's travel stipends, library accounts, office space, RAs, etc. So I guess I'm complicating the hypo in terms of what "free" means.

Kim Krawiec

Thanks, Dan.

You're right, Matt. I've seen many chairs where the endowment doesn't pay for the faculty line, but only the "excess" above a standard salary. There, the case against the hire is even clearer. I was purposely trying to craft a more difficult, but still somewhat plausible, hypothetical in which the choice for the school is really (1) make this hire, for no monetary outlay, or (2) don't hire at all. Although it's tempting to believe that the "free" hire is the better option, I've come to question whether there really is such a thing, even in the case such as I describe.


so there is a chance the whittler may become deadwood. he may warp faculty governance, perhaps leading to rot in areas beyond his own wheelhouse. i think you nailed it.

Norman Williams

I agree with respect to chairs involving subject areas of such marginal utility, but are there really that many endowed chairs out there with such narrow and of marginal utility subject matter restrictions? My own sense, anecdotal to be sure, is that most chair subject-matter restrictions involve traditional areas and are broadly drawn even then (public international law, constitutional law, business law). As to these types of chairs, I see little fear of distorting hiring decisions since the chair fills a traditional curricular need; rather, the chair may assist hiring in an area that the school would already be seeking to fill even absent the chair.


Another distorting effect: sometimes faculties disagree about the "vision" for a chair, and whether a candidate fits that vision. A more expansive interpretation widens the pool, so that candidates with stronger credentials might be identified. But the starting point -- the definition of the chair's subject area -- becomes a point of contention. (E.g. what is whittling? only wood-related work, or anything relating to paring down a substance, including an idea?) So this displaces faculty politics from arguments over the merits to arguments over "fit" with the "vision." Or arguments over fit become subterfuge for arguments about whom to hire.

Kim Krawiec

Laughing out loud, GSM. You’re right Norman that few real-life examples are as extreme as the hypothetical I’ve painted, but I think the point still holds. I can easily imagine a school that would not list, for example, business law or public international law as hiring priorities, given the numerous other subject matters that are no doubt unrepresented on the faculty. Or that believes the entry-level market is of better quality in these subject matters. Or that believes they are low-quality fields, as compared to other subject matters. I suppose that anon is right – if the faculty really agreed about priorities, visions, and what constituted quality, the presence of “free money” wouldn’t have a distortive effect. But typically they don’t.

Norman Williams

Kim, fair enough. But isn't the solution to leave the chair unfilled then? There is presumably no obligation under school hiring policies or the terms of the endowing gift to fill the chair immediately; indeed, I know of several schools that have chairs that have been open for several years. True, the money sits unused during that time, but the chair is there for when the school does want/need someone in that area and would prefer a senior appointment to a junior one. I don't dispute your point that chairs "could have" a distorting effect; I just disagree that they "necessarily" do have that effect.

Kim Krawiec

Agreed completely, Norman. I don't believe they're necessarily distortive either. In fact, I assume that most of the time they represent a happy confluence of faculty preferences and new money. And as you say, the proper response when it isn't is to leave the chair unfilled. But I think the temptation is there to think of an otherwise unlikely chair hire as "free" in a way that it really isn't. I bring this up primarily because there was a time when I mostly thought that way -- "hey, the money's just lying there waiting to be picked up! How stupid not to use it." Over time, I've decided I was in error. (I suspect that some folks remain in error).

Norman Williams

One final thought: to say that there is distortion requires a normative baseline regarding how hiring should be done against which the contested influence can be judged. Presumably, your baseline is the person who the faculty would select in the absence of any constraints -- aka a "best athlete" search. On that view, however, there are many distortions in the hiring process, such as budgetary constraints, subject-matter limits independent of chairs, and intra-faculty contests. The presence of an unfilled chair strikes me as merely one possible distortion, and not even the most significant one, in a long line of influences that may and often prevent a faculty from recruiting the best athlete.

Matt  Lister

"few real-life examples are as extreme as the hypothetical I’ve painted"

Some years ago a wealthy Ayn Rand enthusiast (I forget who it was) wanted to give one million dollars to endow a chair in philosophy at McGill university devoted to the study of Rand's work. The department turned down the offer when it was clear that the donor was very serious about the holder mostly focusing on Rand, with the official reason being that this was too narrow of a focus for a hire, even with outside money funding it. (I suspect a judgment on the actual value of Rand's work mattered, too, though this was officially denied.)

Kim Krawiec

Thanks for that example Matt. I seem to vaguely remember that case and similar examples. Of course, my suspicion is that we primarily hear only about cases, such as this one, where the school decided to refuse the chair money. Not the presumably more frequent instances of money accepted, which the school then struggled to fill; argued over internally; or filled with a hire that otherwise would not meet the school's needs (for whatever reason) and would not have been hired in the absence of the donation.


Anybody else notice the hypo was we'd like to hire a man, but we might get stuck hiring a woman?

Miriam A. Cherry

If they are such an expert at whittling, why can't they make their own chair? (Sorry! Couldn't resist the pun!). Thought-provoking post, Kim.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • StatCounter
Blog powered by Typepad