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Trial by combat, law school style

This story is hilarious. 78-year-old law professor was told he can no longer teach a certain required course; this jeopardizes his current arrangement where he is paid full time but only teaches one semester a year, so he’s suing his employer . . . Columbia Law School.

The beautiful part of this story is how logical it all is. Dude wins the case? That means he’s such a stone-cold lawyer that he can sue Columbia University and win, thus he clearly is qualified to teach a required course. But if he loses the case, he’s a fool’s fool who foolishly thought he ever had a chance to win this lawsuit, and thus is clearly unqualified to teach at a top law school.

It’s trial by combat, but this time it makes sense.

The only part that doesn’t work is that he seems to have hired a law firm. Really he should be representing himself. That would make the story better.

P.S. I don’t know any of the people involved in this one, and the reactions here are just mine; I’m not speaking in any official Columbia University capacity.


  1. David P says:

    There was an ancient Greek professor of sophistry, I can’t remember the name, who promised his students that they would win their first case after his school or else he’d refund their tuition. So of course one of his newly-graduated students immediately sued him for the tuition.

  2. Foster Boondoggle says:

    I hope I’m not spoiling the joke by noting the similarity to this ancient parable.

  3. Emmanuel Charpentier says:

    > The only part that doesn’t work is that he seems to have hired a law firm. Really he should be
    > representing himself. That would make the story better.

    Really ? How come that ill physicians usually abstain from diagnosing themselves and call another physician ? As the old saying goes : “The man who is his own physician has a fool for a patient”.

    This probably goes for legal mishaps (with one major difference : medical problems are rooted in a state of nature, whereas legal problems are strictly differences between two (or more) states of minds).

    • Kyle MacDonald says:

      I think the suggestion was that this law professor should represent himself precisely because he needs to demonstrate that he himself is a competent litigator. If he were a doctor with a viral infection, he wouldn’t (primarily) want to demonstrate to the virus, or to anyone else, that he is capable of treating a viral infection: he would just want the infection treated. The risk of doing it himself would not be offset by the reward if he succeeded: he would just be somebody who is no longer infected.

      Also, I’m not sure that legal differences are entirely about states of mind. A legal question might hinge, for example, on whether somebody went from a living state to a dead state over a statement about who would inherit their estate, and whether this happened in the state in which the court was located. (Sorry, I thought of a couple of these and had to write them down.)

  4. zbicyclist says:

    Possibly more to the dean’s displeasure is that Google Scholar doesn’t show anything newer than 2013 for him.,14
    (and when I pull up that book, I see the copyright on the book is actually 2008.)

    So, you have a guy chewing up maybe $400k in the budget, who’s barely on campus, and doesn’t seem to be producing any more. What’s a dean to do?

    • a reader says:

      zbicylist: Can’t claim to know the costs exactly, but I can say with certainty that it doesn’t cost the school $400k (or anywhere close) to have the professor teach.

      My father is emeritus. My understanding is that he gets close to his full salary if he does not teach…and his full salary if does teach one course. I think it’s something like 80% for not teaching, 100% for teaching? So while teaching only one class a year, he can make as much as a full professor, the university is actually spending 20% of his salary to have him teach. Also, since he was hired along time ago, his salary is *much* less than more recently tenured full professors.

      It’s my understanding that in the end, this comes out to having a considerably lower cost per course to the university to have him teach than even an assistant professor. I think the bigger concern to the university is that professors often want to still teach long past their teaching prime.

      • Elin says:

        I don’t think he is emeritus. If he was, he wouldn’t be doing 2 credit classes.
        Also, at least in my university, different budget once you are retired.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          In my experience, emeritus means you are no longer on the regular payroll, unless you teach. Possibly A Reader’s father is retired and gets retirement benefits that are close to his before-retirement salary, but can get additional pay for teaching if that is agreed to by the university.

    • a reader says:

      …although it appears that he is not emeritus! The dean is arguing that he is teaching past his prime though.

  5. Allan Cousins says:

    The article suggests the professor has been teaching criminal law as late. The action he is bringing forward is a civil matter (I may be wrong about this. I didn’t have the initiative to read the complaint). Winning or losing the civil case on his own merit doesn’t necessarily speak to his ability to effectively teach or practice criminal law.

    But at the end of the day….he’s 78. He’s had a good run.

    • Keith O'Rourke says:

      He’s 78 and here’s a paper from one at Oxford who is 93 (or close)
      (I really like this paper even with this statement “It is hard to see a general quantitative basis for such wide-ranging synthesis of evidence, although for an individual research worker a subjectivist view of probability might be invoked.”)

      • Allan Cousins says:

        Thanks Keith. If I can write that lucidly at 93 I would be pretty happy.

        I thought the inclusion of the milk experiment in the 1930s was quite interesting. Here is Student’s paper about the study for those interested ( The part about measuring issues I think is a key insight (I especially liked that the subjects in the control group being from wealthier families may have had bulkier winter cloths so a comparison of weights from winter to spring would need to have accounted for it).

      • Dale Lehman says:

        The Cox article is wonderful. Truly. This is but one gem in it:
        “In other contexts, one single score (QALY) may be appropriate, much loved by health economists, no doubt at least in part because of the one-dimensional nature of so much theoretical thinking in economics, forced by the tyranny of wanting to optimize something.”

        As I age (seemingly more quickly every year), it is inspiring to see examples like this. Perhaps we shouldn’t consider the age of this law professor at all.

    • gdanning says:

      And this prof published this book at age 83: So, we can’t assume that the Columbia prof’s run is over …

    • poorlando says:

      Teaching the law and practicing the law involve two very different skill sets. Furthermore, you can basically divide the population of practitioners into litigators and nonlitigators, each of whom require specialized knowledge and skills that don’t always overlap. In this case, it is totally ordinary that a criminal law professor has hired a civil litigator to represent him on a claim of age discrimination. Simply having basic legal credentials and knowledge of one area of the law does not mean you are competent in any legal specialty whatsoever, and there are a LOT of specialties out there.

  6. Phil says:

    Everyone: read the article before commenting. The article is written with a certain point of view — some might say it is biased — but the facts really are hilarious.

    One thing that is especially germane to the conversation: the guy isn’t being told he can’t teach a course in order to keep his sweet deal, he’s being told he can’t teach a _required_ course. All he has to do is teach an elective course instead…and not have it cancelled due to low enrollment. But it turns out that he has taught elective courses in the past and not enough students have enrolled, so of course he doesn’t like that solution.

    • Elin says:

      Dean playing hardball the way effective Deans do. Either change people’s teaching schedules or say they need to move offices, the two tried and true methods to get people to move to “fractional” appointments.

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