Consider the following excerpt from an article written by a former student at the University of Oxford –

“The green and lush lawns of the colleges you observe are due to the policy Oxford has maintained for centuries of allowing only professors to step on the grass. Everyone is obliged to keep walking along the concrete path, even when talking to a professor who may be walking through the grass. The rule is indeed odd one since it creates a certain one-manship between the professors and other teaching and supporting staff, as well as students.” 

I argue that this rule, which I refer to as ‘restrictive lawn policy’ henceforth, is not merely odd but it is also morally objectionable. 

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash

Imagine this policy were replaced by another one which allowed only white, male staff members to walk on the University lawns. We would likely see a media uproar, protests and urgent calls on the university administration to repeal such a sexist and racist policy. All firms, including universities, are cooperative institutions and for that reason, any inequalities in the distribution of benefits and burdens within the firm have to be justified. Firms are one of the few non-state institutions in liberal democratic societies wherein we tolerate widespread asymmetries of power, authority and regard, because we assume such asymmetries to be necessary to achieve the firm’s stated goals. However, as Niko Kolodny rightly argues, such asymmetries, if not impersonally justified, can lead to “claims against inferiority”. Such claims can arise even if they do not set back anybody’s interests in improvement. We can imagine the counter factual situation to be one in which no one is allowed to walk on the lawns (referred to as the ‘no access lawn policy’ henceforth). In this way, the discriminatory policy can be seen as giving a new right to only the professors. A move from the no access policy to the restrictive policy does not affect anybody’s non-comparative interests directly as staff members other than professors (I leave aside the case of students for present purposes) are not allowed to walk on the lawns in either case. Any new wronging that arises from this shift can thus be attributed to claims against inferiority arising from the inequality. 

Here, I consider one possible justification that can be offered to defeat the claims against inferiority arising from the restrictive lawn policy, which runs as follows –  

P1- The goal of a university is knowledge production. 

P2 – Good knowledge production happens when a high number of scholars in the university achieve a certain standard of academic expertise. Assume that all those who achieve this standard become professors. 

P3 – To encourage a high number of scholars to achieve this level of expertise, the title of a professor needs to be seen as prestigious. 

P4 – Giving special privileges to professors, such as exclusive rights to lawns, is likely to make their position more prestigious and aspiration worthy. 

C1 – The university needs to offer certain special privileges to professors to ensure a high number of scholars achieve a certain standard of academic expertise, so that it can effectively meet its stated goal of knowledge production. 

I challenge P3 as it is not hard to imagine examples of scholars aiming for higher academic standards, even in the absence of any prestige-based incentives. Some scholars may see intrinsic value in achieving this standard. Others may strive for it so as to become a professor, not in pursuit of prestige but for other goods associated with the job such as greater job security and more autonomy in terms of selecting their research projects. Thus, it is not at all obvious why the title of a professor needs to be seen as prestigious to encourage a high number of scholars to achieve this level of expertise. 

One may argue that while prestige-based incentives would not be necessary for good knowledge production in a university with a more egalitarian ethos and/or with staff that is very intrinsically motivated, they may be necessary in Oxford University, owing to its history and reputation. Scholars get attracted to Oxford, precisely because of the prospects it offers them of enjoying high levels of prestige. If the position of professor is not seen as prestigious, they may not be motivated to put in the extra effort required to achieve the high academic standards. However, it is quite implausible to claim that the number of scholars at Oxford meeting the high academic standards would go down in the absence of prestige-based awards. The job of the professor would still carry other benefits to be attractive enough to be aspiration worthy. Moreover, knowing that faculty hiring at Oxford tends to be quite competitive, it should not be very difficult to find scholars who would be willing to strive for the high standards despite the position not being prestigious. In such a situation, if the university administration still maintains special privileges for professors, then it seems to effectively rule in favor of some employees who prefer to have prestige-based incentives, thus violating impersonal justification. 

In a paper in progress, I consider several other possible justifications for the restrictive lawn policy, such as those based on desert and compensation for unequal burdens, showing why none of them work. Through examples like the one above, I aim to draw general conclusions in the paper about when prestige or status-based rewards within firms may or may not be justified. This has implications for a wide range of cases, such as when firms decide to give one group of employees larger offices, honorific titles, secretaries, exclusive access to certain spaces etc, precisely as an attempt to ensure they enjoy higher prestige than others. My hypothesis is that such status or prestige-based rewards are morally objectionable in a vast majority of cases. If you are someone who thinks there can be other persuasive justifications for the restrictive lawn policy or for status-based rewards in general, I would love to hear from you! 

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Sanat Sogani

I am a doctoral candidate in Political Theory at the Central European University. My dissertation focuses on the normative relationship between jobs, social status and self-respect.