Why Is the Lieber Prize Ageist?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Yesterday, my colleague Chris Borgen posted ASIL’s call for submissions for the 2016 Francis Lieber Prize, which is awarded annually to one monograph and one article “that the judges consider to be outstanding in the field of law and armed conflict.” I think it’s safe to say that the Lieber Prize is the most prestigious award of its kind.

But there’s a catch: you are not eligible for consideration if you are over 35. Which led Benjamin Davis to make the following comment:

For the record, the Lieber Prize criteria discriminates against persons like myself who at the ripe young age of 44 entered academia and was therefore nine years passed the upper limit in 2000. It particularly is galling when one realizes that Lieber WROTE his famous order at the age of 65.

If one wanted to correct this obvious and repugnant ageist requirement and one took the generous position that at 25 one could enter academia, then the criteria should suggest ten years maximum in academia. I still would be far passed the time-limit, but it would provide encouragement to those intrepid souls who decide later in life that being a legal academic is a noble calling for them and focusing on the laws of armed conflict is a wonderful arena in which to develop one’s research agenda.

I think Ben is absolutely right. The Lieber Prize’s hard age requirement obviously skews in favour of the kind of scholar who never spent considerable time outside of academia. Scholars who have had previous careers — whether in private practice, in government, in the military, or even working for organisations that do precisely the kind of law covered by the Prize, such as the ICRC — are simply out of luck if they worked for a number of years before becoming an academic.

If there was some sort of intellectual justification for limiting the Lieber Prize to academics under 35, the age limit might be okay. But, like Ben, I don’t see one. The most obvious rationale for some kind of limit is that ASIL wants to encourage and reward individuals who are newer to academia. But that rationale would suggest an eligibility requirement like the one that Ben suggests — a requirement that excludes submissions from individuals who have been in academia for a certain number of years, regardless of their chronological age. Some 34-year-olds have been in academia for nearly a decade! (I’m looking at you, Steve Vladeck.) And some 40-year-olds have been in academia only a few years. (Such as Chris Jenks, who was a JAG for many years before becoming a professor.) Yet only individuals in the latter category are excluded from the Lieber Prize — and they are excluded categorically.

Personally, I think Ben’s suggestion of 10 years from the time an individual entered academia is too long. I would still be eligible to submit with that limit! I would go with six years, like the Junior Faculty Forum for International Law. And also like the Junior Faculty Forum, I would permit the judges to wave the six-year requirement in exceptional circumstances — such as a woman or man who interrupted an academic career to take care of children.

What do you think, readers?


8 Responses

  1. With age, a person’s approach to problems matures. I too, wonder as to why a cut-off age has been specified. Like the person (Mr. Benjamin Davis) who has commented, I too am not eligible to participate.

  2. I absolutely agree. The cut off age seems entirely arbitrary. I just turned 36 this year but am nonetheless a PhD student-why should my age rather than my academic status define my eligibility?

  3. I also agree….with the additional suggestion that having children or taking leave for demonstrable family reasons need not be considered an ‘exceptional’ reason to add the appropriate time to the 10-year ‘limit’! I say this as someone with multiple previous graduate degrees (undertaken while working full-time); having also worked in professional capacities for public, NGO and the private sector for several years; now undertaking full-time doctoral research in law, during which I took leave to accommodate family developments. And there are many more of ‘me’ out there!

  4. I’d love to take part and I’d be young enough. My co-author, however, isn’t.

  5. Siobhan,

    I wasn’t trying to imply that it’s abnormal for someone to give birth! I meant “exceptional” in the sense of a very good reason for not applying a time-limit across the board…

  6. It is somewhat “arbitrary,” but it was done as part of an effort to attract “young” scholars to write papers on the laws of war (so there was a purpose — which, perhaps, means that it was not arbitrary). It is, nonetheless, age discrimination.

  7. Will our comments bring about a change?

  8. I did not get my law degree until I was 45, so yes I find such restrictions frustrating and ageist. In fact, we need incentives to keep older scholars from becoming demoralized, precisely at a time when society as a whole needs older workers to keep working.

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