In addition to being a professor, you do a lot of sports writing. How did that start?
I think every American kid is interested in some sport, and I was interested in baseball. I got involved in fantasy sports in 2001, and I discovered that one of the better-known baseball analysts in the country — Ron Shandler — lived in Roanoke. I gave him a call and invited him to visit my statistics course. As you can imagine, a statistics course can get a little dry, so I thought I'd bring in a baseball guy to spice it up. He came and gave a talk that evening on statistics and the industry, which at the end became a Q&A for all the fantasy gurus trying to extract free information from our guest speaker. That's what really got me involved in the analysis part. A few years ago, Ron sent out a call for writers and held a short article contest. My piece won, and so I started writing for that publication.
Writing has been a lot of fun because it allows you to look at the sport through a different lens. You pick up some subtleties that don't come through box scores or just a television screen. For example, I did this analysis of player prices in a closed market and how they fluctuate versus the players' performance. There are some really elegant analyses in baseball, and I can make my own little contributions. It makes you see a sport from a different perspective when you can pick it apart this way. Sports writing is a lot of fun. I'll keep doing it.
You've been doing research and writing some articles on sports and the law. What is the relationship between the two?
That particular research draws upon the notion of judges as umpires. The role of courts in society and how they compare with an umpire or referee is really intriguing. Even if people are not necessarily sports fans, they get the idea of the judge, the umpire or the referee making a call and then the game moving on. The extent to which that is an appropriate metaphor for the courts is a matter of some debate. There's a big difference between constitutional and legal interpretation and simply calling balls and strikes. I have been collecting some data dealing with statistical corrections to ballgames, and I'm looking to see how those compare with the impact of umpires' decisions. It's a lot of fun, and it combines two of the things I really enjoy in life: law and sports.
How did your work as a dean in a university at United Arab Emirates change your perspective or give you new research interests?
I served as a dean at the American University of Sharjah for three years. The school sought to be American with its educational values while still incorporating Arab culture. I am now able to look at the United States through the lens of another educational institution and see how Western values have to adapt or evolve in a different cultural environment.
I saw differences in how educational systems function — everything from very boring accreditation rules to classroom morals and notions of academic integrity. One of the things I've actually looked into as a result of my time there is academic integrity. Trying to bring Western notions of honor and academic integrity and matching them with cultures that think very differently than Washington and Lee really makes for great study.
I've also developed a new appreciation for the role of religion in public life. In many ways, some of the tensions that Muslim countries are encountering now are very similar to the ones that Western countries encountered between church and state. Religion versus public policy, religion versus science and religion versus the law all become big issues. I've developed a course that I'll be offering in the fall on the intersection of science, law and religion. People want to regard all three — law, science and religion — as grounded on enduring, fundamental principles. The principles, however, do change. This raises important questions on just how we think about religious knowledge, legal authority and scientific expertise.
What exactly are you looking into when you say you are researching honor systems?
I'm curious to see how they're changing over time. Another question concerns their portability and exportability. Can you import an honor system into an American university that doesn't have one? What would it take to do that? Or, if you're trying to build a new university, could you build one from the ground up? And then finally, just in other countries, would it work? What makes ours work? Would it work if we were as big as the University of Virginia? Can it work in a different society where cultural norms are so powerful? That's a very big project. I've been working on this with several students at W&L and have established overseas connections as we look into the development of honor or academic integrity systems in other countries.
From a professor's perspective, what role does honor play in the classroom at W&L?
It enables us to have a better, open classroom environment. I assume that students aren't cheating, and they assume I'm not trying to catch them doing something. I don't have to pace the aisles during exams. The honor tradition removes the notion of a police state from the classroom. Colleagues from other universities (American and non-American) are always amazed to see how we administer exams and how we approach integrity. W&L really is a model for others to emulate.
I saw the cost of not having an honor system when I was in the Middle East. The number of hours that faculty had to spend just patrolling the aisles really created this sense of opposition between them and the students was remarkable.
From a perspective of global education, it's a fascinating topic of study. The different notions of academic integrity and honor become almost a commodity in an international realm, whereas here we regard them as nonnegotiable, firm and established.
What global issue do you find most compelling right now?
The most compelling issue right now is just generally demographics. That covers a broad spectrum of issues. Demographic change is going to produce migration and result in conflict. I think much of the violence we see around the world, especially in poorer parts of the world, are due to resource shortages because of demographic change. It sounds very apocalyptic. Malthus back in the 19th century predicted we'd run out of food because of population growth. It turns out technology saved us. But now it seems again that the population is beginning to test the world's resources in terms of water and food. As people are forced to move to find food, water shelter and security, conflict will occur.
A good example is the impact of rising sea levels on people living in island nations, in the Maldives and in some of the islands in the South Pacific. These islands will be inundated and their populations will have to move. Right now there's no law that really addresses this issue of where these people may move and what country should receive them because, at present, their island nations are inhabitable. But, this crisis is coming and the nations of the world must address it
- interview by Laura Lemon '16 and Jinae Kennedy '16