Admittedly Dumb Idea (Number One): The Proffie Awards

This post will inaugurate an occasional series, Admittedly Dumb Ideas*, that I may post on this site.

This Admittedly Dumb Idea occurred to me recently, when I read a newspaper article that described a particular law professor as “prominent.” It struck me that when laypeople read that someone is a “prominent,” “well-known,” or “eminent” law professor, they may want to know: how prominent? There’s no law-professor equivalent to a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize, or to an even more generic label such as “best-selling” or “twice-convicted,” to help the public decide whether to ignore a professor’s opinion, or genuflect before it.

In most other fields of effort, there exist awards or honors to distinguish the good from the great. And so, let me propose the following Proffie Awards that might provide laypersons with some potentially helpful information. As I will explain, each of these awards draws from an honor that’s issued in another arena, and signifies a different sort of professorial achievement.

1. Law Professor of the Year (inspiration: Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”):

What the Award Signifies: Time states that its award goes to the person who, “for better or for worse . . . has done the most to influence the events of the year.”

Law Professor Equivalent: Easy–”Law Professor of the Year,” going to the current law professor (sorry, President Obama) who “for better or for worse . . . has done the most to influence the events of the year.”

Randy Barnett is the leader in the clubhouse for 2012′s Law Professor of the Year. Even if you despise the entirety of the ACA litigation, there’s no denying the important role Barnett has played in this controversy.

I haven’t considered who the retroactive winners of the Law Professor of the Year award would be, though I’m sure Larry Lessig would probably nab at least one title (1999 or 2000), as would Catherine McKinnon (1986).

2. Five Timers’ Club (inspiration: Saturday Night Live’s Five Timers’ Club): Saturday Night Live has a recurring skit (here’s a link) in which certain of the show’s hosts are initiated into the “Five Timers’ Club,” reserved for entertainers who have hosted the program on five occasions.

What the Award Signifies: Extended relevance. Membership in the Five Timers’ Club does not connote eternal fame, or even excellence; while Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, and Alec Baldwin are all members of this set, so too are Elliott Gould and Buck Henry. Instead, membership in this group simply establishes that you were relevant for a period of several years. Which is a long time, in the worlds of entertainment and law alike. You can’t be totally washed-up or a non-celebrity and still host SNL (ok, except for Miskel Spillman, but that was a special case), and you can’t host the show five times in anything less than four or five seasons.

Law Professor Equivalent: Five (non-co-authored) articles or essays published in flagship T14 journals. (Here, we’re talking about substantial articles or essays, not book reviews or tributes or weak symposium entries.) The same basic limiting principles apply here, as to the SNL Five Timers’ Club: a law professor can’t get this done in just a year. Plus, it’s hard to milk a single topic for five articles, so anyone who wins this award has made themselves relevant to at least a couple of significant ongoing debates.

I could be convinced that publication in any flagship T14 journal casts too broad a net; in some future Admittedly Dumb Ideas post, I may start to compile a list of members of the Law Professor Five Timers’ Club, and decide if I have to tighten the criteria for admission, or come up with some different award that recognizes some sort of Inner Circle.

3. EGOT (inspiration: the TV program “30 Rock”): The Tracy Jordan character on “30 Rock” is obsessed with winning the full “EGOT” series of awards (“EGOT” stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony).  If he did so, he’d join Sir John Gielgud, Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Moreno, Whoopi Goldberg, Marvin Hamlisch, Richard Rodgers, Jonathan Tunick, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, and Scott Rudin.

What the Award Signifies: Excellence across different media. Note that unlike the Five Timers’ Club, someone can earn the EGOT in a single year; thus this award doesn’t recognize sustained achievement so much as it does reaching a series of pinnacles at some particular moment, or moments, in time.

Law Professor Equivalent: This is a tough one. Let’s assume that a law professor is ideally  1) a great teacher; 2) a great scholar qua scholar; 3) a useful scholar; and 4) a public intellectual.

From this, I think that winning law students’ “Professor of the Year” award at an institution would pin down the first element, at least as well as anything else might. We’ve already given an honor tied to publications at high-end journals, so for the “scholarship” component, how about a book published by Oxford University Press? The third element requires at least one citation to the scholar’s work by the United States Supreme Court.

Finally, the fourth element would involve an in-studio interview on either “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.” This sounds like an impossible element to satisfy, but hey, you gotta earn your EGOT. And it’s not as if this component is that difficult to achieve; over the past few years the following law professors have appeared on one or another of these shows: Jonathan Macey (Yale), Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard), Robert Glennon (University of Arizona), Larry Lessig (Harvard), Neal Katyal (Georgetown), John Coffee (Columbia), Amy Chua (Yale), and possibly others.

4. Hall of Fame (inspiration: the Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey, and Country Music Halls of Fame):

What the Award Signifies: This honor resists definition, since the criteria for admission into any Hall of Fame change over time. Sustained excellence certainly offers one route into a Hall of Fame, but it’s not the only avenue; for every Walter Johnson in the baseball Hall of Fame, there’s a Sandy Koufax or Dizzy Dean, who were just as (or possibly, more) excellent, but for a much shorter period of time than Johnson was; and a Candy Cummings, who wasn’t very excellent at all, but who “earned” his spot there by “inventing” the curveball. (It’s disputed whether Cummings actually invented the curveball, but the Baseball Hall of Fame says that he did, and the Hall of Fame and its voters aren’t going to let a little thing like a dispute over the facts stand in the way of modern mythology development.)

Meanwhile, even long-term excellence doesn’t guarantee admission into a Hall of Fame if one runs afoul of a contemporary taboo, be it cheating or gambling or steroids. But once you’re in, you’re in, even as times change. Today, no one seriously proposes kicking Ty Cobb, Tom Yawkey, or Kenesaw Mountain Landis out of the Baseball Hall of Fame because they were racists, or Babe Ruth, because he probably used a doctored bat a couple of times.

The bottom line for all Halls of Fame is a sense an inductee is important to the sport–important in a good way–for reasons that normally should be capable of quantification, but aren’t always. The “aren’t always” override permits the induction of athletes such as Dean, Gale Sayers, and Pete Maravich, who all had electric but brief careers, into their respective Halls of Fame, as well as “trailblazers” (like Cummings), owners, umpires and referees, managers, and general managers. The same “override” principle might open the Law Professor Hall of Fame’s doors to scholars such as Arthur Leff and Alexander Bickel, both of whom died too young; to Lutie Lytle, the first female law professor; and to deans who produced little scholarship, but built great institutions.

Law Professor Equivalent: A Law Professor Hall of Fame, naturally. Although I know that Washington, D.C., offers the logical location for the Hall, the institution would compete with way too many other, better attractions there. So I would suggest placing the Hall in Litchfield, Connecticut–the former home of the Litchfield Law School–instead. Induction ceremonies would take place on June 21, the date when (in 1788) New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. Instead of plaques, inductees would receive, and be memorialized in the hall by, bronzed copies of one of their publications (their choice).

I don’t have a short list for early inductees into the Law Professor Hall of Fame. One has to think that the these inductees would certainly include Langdell, Calabresi, Posner, Ames, Epstein, Fuller, Green, MacKinnon, Ely, Prosser, Wigmore, Hart, Weschler, Sunstein, Story (Old Timers’ Division), Frankfurter, Pound, Llewellyn, Michelman, Corbin, Williston, and Tribe. I’m sure I’m overlooking many other deserving professors. I’m also looking forward to aggressive campaigns by supporters of particular candidates, particularly if we limit the number of inductees in any given year. Who wouldn’t want to relive, say, the faculty battles of yesteryear between Critical Legal Studies and Law and Economics scholars, only with today’s Hall of Fame candidates as proxies?

***

There could be other Proffie Awards, of course; this list isn’t exhaustive.  But I already have spent way too much of this Sunday morning conjuring up this Admittedly Dumb Idea.

* = I acknowledge that “Admittedly Dumb Ideas” sounds a bit like “Half-Baked Ideas,” a quite funny series by B.S. Report correspondent Kevin Wildes. Unlike Wildes’ ideas, each of which contains a kernel of value, my thoughts are pretty much useless, and very possibly counterproductive to positive social virtues.