I have been engaged in a minor dust-up with my good friend Conor Dugan over reports that Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly has been entertaining talks with the Philadelphia Eagles concerning their head coaching vacancy. It should come as a surprise to no one that there are many persons who read FPR who are Notre Dame fans. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a Michigan man, and also that I have less than high regard for Brian Kelly. Indeed, a short post I wrote upon Kelly’s hiring at Notre Dame was regarded by some – not without just cause – as “pretty stupid.” One should be careful about highlighting the behavior of one person in an inordinately corrupt and perversely incentivized economic system. But, given the way Notre Dame hired Kelly away from Cincinnati, Notre Dame fans ought not be surprised if he ditches them in due order.

Conor asked if there was any substantive difference between Kelly and Brady Hoke or Rich Rodriguez, to which the answer seems to me to be “no.” In some ways I found Rich Rod to be the most objectionable (and not just because he ran Michigan football into the ground) because he left home. There was one question raised on that thread, however, that caught my interest: who of us wouldn’t use such an inquiry so as to either double our salary or use as leverage to extract more out of our employer? That is an interesting question, and makes some pretty interesting assumptions about income and the good life.

In answer, I would like to believe I would do neither of those things. My employer has been good to me. They treat me and pay me fairly. Were I to leverage another offer to squeeze more money out of them there are all sorts of harms that would result from that: a distortion of the salary scale, the generation of distrust between the administration and me, budgetary consequences that could lead to higher tuition for students, resentment among colleagues, and so forth. In other words, such deliberations are not mere private transactions between two parties but contain many externalities, most of which are negative. I am living close to family and friends in a culture that more or less makes sense. More money is no compensation for those things.

Then, of course, there is the issue of what it suggests about my character. Am I really willing to pit two parties against each other so that I can extract maximum profit from one of them? It may be that most human beings would do it, but it’s hard to see the justification for doing it, unless you believe that the summum bonum of life is the maximization of personal material well-being.

Alvin Plantinga was still a professor at Calvin College when I was a student there. The story goes (and I have good reason to regard my source for this as unimpeachable) that every year Plantinga would have a meeting with the President where he would share with the President all the offers he had received that year from other universities. Every year the President would say to him “I think your place is here.” Plantinga never used these conversations, I’m told, as leverage. His salary and workload remained consistent with everyone else’s. He never tried to extract more money from the administration. He was simply discussing with the head of the community his place within it. One year he went in with an offer from Notre Dame. President Diekema looked up from the offer sheet and said “I think you need to take this one.” The time of life, the nature of the offer, the understanding of Plantinga’s unique gifts – all this led to a mutual decision about what was best for all parties. My understanding is that Plantinga never harbored resentment about being discouraged from going to an Ivy league school (his personal memoirs indicate that even after Diekema’s imprimatur he had a hard time leaving Calvin). In some ways I think it is instructive for understanding how personal decision-making ought to take place within a communal context. I don’t expect Notre Dame or Michigan or any other schools with a multi-million dollar football program to get that. In the meantime, there are lots of broken promises and broken hearts.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.

3 COMMENTS

  1. As I recall, shortly before leaving Cincinnati, Coach Kelly was reported as saying something similar to his recent statement that “Leaving is not an option,” he said. “I don’t even think about it.”

    Hence, the report from SI on the “upwardly mobile” Brian Kelly – http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/andy_staples/12/15/cincy.kelly/index.html

    and the statement reported from him in 2009 that: “I’m not going to talk about any job situations,” Kelly said. “I’m going to enjoy this victory. If anyone else wants to ask a question, here’s the response you’ll get: ‘Let’s talk about back-to-back championship teams and these kids.’ That’s the focus.”

    If it’s not this year to a BBD, then it’s next year, or the year after that….

  2. OK, Jeffrey, I’ve never been a “Match this offer or I’m gone either” kind of guy. But institutions can exploit individual loyalty as well. If my university were paying me $60,000 per year, and another offered me $100,00, I don’t see any problem going to my department head and saying, “See, I am underpaid. I don’t need you to match their offer, because I am loyal and value my connections here. But please don’t take advantage of that loyalty to severely underpay me!”

  3. It comes off as if you are making the assumption that Brian Kelly believes all the things that you believe about your work situation about his. If he doesn’t believe he is adequately paid or doesn’t believe the pay scale in place for his staff (the equivalent of his department were he in a non-football workplace) is adequate for him to be successful at the level his employer asks.

    If he does believe that his salary needs to be higher for either his own personal reasons or to be able to attract successors who will continue to achieve at the level he, or the university, demands then his leveraging is an attempt to better position his department for the long term success that is expected. In that case it’s an employee being strategic about the development of a program and it’s future.

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