Paul L. Caron

Monday, August 26, 2019

Moneyball, Astroball, And Pepperball

Moneyball AstroballOn Friday, the deans of Pepperdine's five schools gave short 10-minute talks at the Provost's faculty orientation program for the 34 new faculty on campus. I talked about what I had learned in my first year as dean and how that influenced my just-concluded second year. I share those thoughts here in the hope that some may find them of interest.

When I ran for dean, I promised that if chosen I would do everything in my power to help Pepperdine become the nation's premier faith-based law school by combining excellence and faith in a community that is welcoming to everyone. I pledged that we would strive to (1) maximize our students’ return on investment; (2) pursue ambitious and accountable excellence in everything we do; and (3) build a community in which all students, faculty, and staff are loved, nurtured, and challenged to grow professionally, personally, and spiritually.

In our first year, we implemented a plan with the help of our university to (1) reduce JD enrollment to improve student credentials (LSAT, UGPA) and outcomes (bar passage, jobs), and (2) offset the JD tuition revenue shortfall by reducing expenses and increasing fundraising and non-JD revenue. The plan has worked far better and far faster than we had ever imagined, as reflected in our rise in the U.S. News law school rankings from #72 to #51 (the largest increase of any Top 100 law school).

I began my deanship with a zeal for Moneyball — I had written an article on the application of Moneyball principles in law schools (What Law Schools Can Learn from Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, 82 Texas L. Rev. 1483 (2004)), and we eagerly set out to use analytics in creating a comprehensive system to measure faculty contributions to the law school in teaching, scholarship, mission, and service. In fulfilling the promise to pursue ambitious and accountable excellence, we used differential raises, bonuses, and teaching loads to reward superior performance. The decisions were difficult, and frankly morale suffered.

In my second year as dean, I was heavily influenced by Astroball. The Houston Astros general manager had used the data-driven Moneyball approach to dramatically improve the team, but fell short of a World Series championship. He then discovered the work of Kate Bezrukova, a SUNY-Buffalo business school professor whose research had studied various industries and concluded that in each one, the companies with greater employee cohesion performed better. Her insight was that demographic differences among employees ("fault lines") adversely affect performance. The GM hired her to examine whether team cohesion mattered in baseball – the conclusion was that it did, and it could account for an additional six wins per season.

The GM took the research to heart and signed Carlos Beltran as a free agent. Beltran had been a great player (a future Hall of Famer) but was now near the end of his career. All of the teams he had been on had great cohesion. During spring training, Beltran tried to break down fault lines between Hispanic and white players by speaking in English to Hispanic players and in Spanish to white players. On opening day, Beltran spoke to the team and said that after each game, they would give awards (championship belts) to the players who had contributed the most on offense and on defense. Beltran would hand out the belts on opening day, and thereafter the players that won the belts would hand them out after the next game.

At first, the players rolled their eyes, but after a few weeks they would race off the field after games for the awards ceremony, replete with a sound system and smoke machine that players had bought. After the Astros won the World Series that year, reporters asked the players who the MVP of their season was. They each said Carlos Beltran, even though he had not done much on the field.

Smoke Machine

In summer 2018, I invited every faculty member and their spouse to our home for dinner in small groups. I asked everyone for their thoughts on how to strengthen community among the faculty. Consensus emerged around three things we implemented in the 2018-19 academic year. First, we instituted Faculty Mondays: we provided lunch and held faculty meetings, research and teaching workshops, and meetings with no formal agenda each week. Second, we restored the faculty retreat with spouses and children — it had been an annual event but was cancelled for several years due to budget challenges.


Third, we gave out a Waves of Excellence Award at each faculty meeting. I presented the first one; thereafter, the winner chose the next month’s winner. It rotated each month from teaching, scholarship, and service. It came with a cheesy trophy the winner kept in her office for the month.

Waves of Excellence

Perhaps most importantly, the winner got a reserved spot for the month in the front row in the faculty parking lot.

Waves of Excellence Parking

In homage to Moneyball and Astroball, we call our approach:

Pepperball Dugout 1

We have our first faculty meeting of the year today at 12:30 p.m. I will let you know if anyone brings a smoke machine.

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