Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Too Mean for Tenure?

Years ago I participated in a panel discussion involving the topic of Tenure. The panel speakers consisted of faculty and at least one Dean, and the people asking questions and listening were administrators, citizens interested in the workings of the university, and some local media. It was an eye-opener for me because it hadn't occurred to me that there were university employees and others closely involved with the university who did not know that research productivity was a requirement for tenure at a major research university.

The most interesting question was: Do you have to be liked to get tenure?

The Dean fielded that one and said, emphatically, no.

I suppose that's true. I am sure we can all think of some colleagues who are not particularly likable or liked but who have tenure.

But perhaps there are limits? Perhaps, if someone is slightly vulnerable in some respect (publications, grants, teaching) and they are bizarre or unlikable, the personality factor can tip the scale? As long as the decision can be justified in terms of the usual "metrics" and not rest heavily on the likability or eccentricity of the candidate, this may well occur.

I think this can also go the other way. I can think of people who are well liked or have some other personal attributes that are seen as positive (one of my colleagues has a favorite hypothesis about Tall Men, for example) and who might therefore see the scales tip in their favor despite having a less-than-awesome record of publications or grants.

The process of evaluating someone for tenure is overall a fair process with many checks and balances, but unless a case is completely obvious, either for or against tenure, by all the usual measures, there are ways that issues like personality can creep in.

I know that some tenure-track faculty worry that if they aren't part of the dominant faculty culture (for whatever reason), they will be at a disadvantage for tenure. Such issues can have wider impact if they affect a faculty member's ability to function in some important way (e.g., access to resources, professional networks, advice) and therefore can ultimately affect a tenure decision, even if not in an obvious way.

At the other end of the spectrum from faculty who feel isolated are those who are very outspoken about controversial issues. The tenure process should be oblivious to such things.

You don't have to be liked to get tenure, but you do need to be able to function in your job. You need to be able to interact with people, especially students, in a positive way. If the reasons someone is widely disliked are related to how they treat students, postdocs, staff, or, in some cases, colleagues, then this characteristic may well be a valid tenure issue.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

"it hadn't occurred to me that there were university employees and others closely involved with the university who did not know that research productivity was a requirement for tenure at a major research university"

Just as that are likely many faculty members who don't know the details of the metric used to determine how other university employees, etc get a promotion...

Anyway, I think that likability/personality play a role in ALL decisions regarding hiring, promotion, tenure, etc. regardless of how subconscious it may be. Human's are biased, subjective individuals and I think this enters into all decisions even when strong rational metrics are in place.

Anonymous said...

I've always been told there is a subjective aspect to tenure, and the golden rule for academia is don't anger anyone who votes for your tenure.

unlikelygrad said...

Agreed. I once took a class from a professor who had just been denied tenure. He was a fantastic prof from a student's point of view--engaging, likable, and capable of giving lectures that were both mathematically rigorous and eminently understandable. He had published since coming to the school, about as much as anyone at that school. He got along well with his immediate colleagues.

Unfortunately, he had a thing against "authority figures" and had alienated the administration at many different levels. Accordingly, people were not surprised that he didn't get tenure, but they were all pretty sad about the decision.

Clarissa said...

I wrote about your post and linked to it here:

http://clarissasbox.blogspot.com/2010/02/niceness-and-tenure.html

John V said...

Maybe this is FSP's train of thought - Amy Bishop was probably qualified for tenure by her record, but suffered by being an opinionated and volatile colleague.

Which points out that tenure must not be purely an academic exercise, at least in the rare Bishop case. She certainly vindicated the denial of tenure with her inappropriate response, no matter whether her pubs and teaching were good.

Anonymous said...

is Univ. of Ala., Huntsville an R1 institution, or more focused on teaching? That might explain the correlation between her denied tenure and what the newspapers are publishing about her teaching style.

Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't personality play into a tenure decision? It does for promotions and hiring decisions in nearly every other industry. When a coworker is difficult to get along with or doesn't "play nicely with others," it has a negative impact on the entire team, department, firm, etc. It makes much more sense to fire that person rather than allow the productivity of the entire group to suffer. Why should academia be an exception to this policy? Why force the rest of the department to endure the harmful attitude of one faculty member, even if that person has managed to do good research or teaches well? Except for very rare cases, one person's great research/teaching does not make up for a negative impact on everyone else's work. The best thing for everyone would be for that person to move to a place where they are a better fit.

Anonymous said...

Unless personality issues are dramatically outside the norm, I do not think they make a major impact in my Department. However, in a borderline case, I think we can and should evaluate whether someone is contributing to the scientific excellence of our Department through their interactions with their colleagues. Someone with a strong history of productive collaborations, and who is helpful in providing access to and advice in using novel technologies, is likely to be more valuable to the Department and the field than someone who does not behave in this way. It should not be whether you go out for coffee or drinks with colleagues, but about whether your colleagues have grad students and postdocs in your lab using your equipment and getting advice from you.

Mark P

tideliar said...

Interesting comment about the "Tall Man" hypothesis. There's evidence to show it sways our emotional responses, even to the point of for whom we vote in an election.

Anonymous said...

As a tall male science professor recently denied tenure, I feel somewhat discriminated against.

What is this hypothesis regarding tall men?

Anonymous said...

From what I've seen of the tenure process, if administration and your colleagues like you, they will find a way to keep you and if they don't, all kinds of petty excuses start showing up in your reviews and they will find a way to get rid of you. 'Don't rock the boat' and 'Don't speak up in faculty meetings' are things I was told.

Dr. O said...

I think that there's a fine line between letting somebody's personality dictate whether or not they get tenure, and whether or not somebody's personality actually gets in the way of them doing their job. There are plenty of quirky scientists out there, certainly a higher proportion in academia than in other fields. But quirkiness or awkwardness certainly shouldn't rule out tenure. However, when an eccentric personality prevents said professor from communicating effectively with colleagues, students and administrators, it becomes a limiting factor for how well he/she can do their job. And that, frankly, will probably become obvious in a review of their overall job performance.

Anonymous said...

Whether or not someone is nice should impact tenure decisions more. I'm not saying tenure should be about popularity, but I have heard statements to the effect of, "Sure, he's a jerk and he can't work with anyone, but he's a really good physicist," way too many times. I work in high energy nuclear physics and our collaborations are over 500 people. If someone can't work well with others, he can't do his job well, and to justify tenure, other qualities have to be enough to compensate - but they seldom do.

I'm a post doc now. I have two faculty supervisors. One of them is a good guy and I enjoy working with him. The other is not. He has called his students stupid (to their face and repeatedly.) He lied to his master's student and said the other people on the committee didn't approve his thesis when they did, and he almost denied the guy a master's simply by refusing to sign a paper on time. He accidentally scheduled an appointment with a student on the wrong day and later berated the student for half an hour because the student should have known he wasn't free at that time and clearly the student wasn't taking his work seriously. He made one of his PhD students start his post doc late because he took two months to get him final corrections on thesis so he could turn it in. He ranted to me for hours on end about how my friends in the collaboration were horrible, awful people and bad physicists and repeatedly tried to force me to agree with him and would not let the issue drop until I either said that he was wrong or said bad things about my friends. (This was in my first couple weeks.) He let me take the blame for his bug in some code in a meeting with collaborators, even when he knew about the bug and had already fixed it but had just not told me. He told me I had to get all time commitments in my personal life approved by him in advance, lest they prevent me from instantaneous travel to CERN. He gave me strict instructions on how to run some jobs and then he monitored my work multiple times per minute to see if I were following his exact instructions. He insults me and insults my intelligence. He complains about students to other students. He's complained about me - and the fact that I was not "working hard" because I was not in the office 12 hours/day - to students. Unfortunately, he is afraid of looking bad in front of colleagues so he is nice to people at the same rank as him and especially above him, but he is psychologically abusive to students and post docs. He's a kiss-up-kick-down man.

The reason this man isn't liked is because he is nasty to people to such an extent it impedes their ability to do their job. And actually, it makes him a really bad physicist. He cannot make constructive criticism of colleagues. He cannot supervise students. He cannot mentor post docs. He's a terrible teacher. Because he works in a field where collaboration is essential and he managed to alienate half of the people in a 500 person collaboration, he's not a very productive researcher. The reason people under his "supervision" have been productive is survival of the fittest. He may have a sterling CV with all of the right names on it, a lot of knowledge, a sky-high IQ, and a lot of technical skills, but he is a terrible physicist and he doesn't deserve tenure. (Alas, he is tenured.)

Anonymous said...

Sports teams often have a 'no arseholes' policy.

It doesn't matter how good you are they won't pick you if you cause problem for the team either on or off-field.

female Science Professor said...

I think it more important that administrators who have a role in tenure decisions and university policies know what tenure criteria are than that faculty know how administrators are promoted.

The Bishop incident was of course part of the motivation for this post, but my intent was to consider more general situations involving non-homicidal people.

unlikely grad: Someone who is denied tenure for annoying administrators, despite having fulfilled all the basic criteria for tenure, would have grounds to appeal (or sue).

The personality issue re. tenure is obviously not a clear-cut one. If my senior colleagues don't like me because I don't talk about sports and don't laugh at their sexist jokes (this is a hypothetical situation), should my inability to get along with my colleagues be a factor in a tenure decision? I hope we can agree that this should not be factor in whether I get to keep my job. If, however, I excel at emotionally torturing students and screaming at my colleagues, then it's an issue. Those might be unambiguous examples, but it's not hard to think of situations that fall somewhere in between. What then?

Hope said...

He's a kiss-up-kick-down man. – I like this phrase; unfortunately, I’ve met more than a few people like this in my time.

I bet a prof could get away with being a pretty bad teacher/advisor and still get tenure. I’ve been at three uni’s so far, and none of them have given students a direct voice in the tenure process. I think things would have to get really bad before something like this would become an issue for someone. Tenure (in science) seems to be all about the research/money; everything else is secondary.

SF State Gators said...

It's all money, 100%, in my experience. Maybe it's because the money keeps shrinking in the humanities, where i am, and even growing areas like lesser spoken languages and film theory are getting slammed. Hiring freezes and layoffs are common, and a retiring tenured professor doesn't always open up a new tenure-track position anymore; instead, the administration brings in two lecturers just as qualified as the tenure candidates would have been.

Everything in academe has changed because of this, and RTP practices are more the rule than the exception. With departments shrinking and contracting, the most 'likable' person can get passed over, as the university is a business first and is responsible to shareholders and stakeholders, not to tradition.

Anonymous said...

Based strictly on her CV, it seems highly unlikely Amy Bishop would've received tenure in my dept. Maybe in the business school but not as a scientist.

unlikelygrad said...

FSP: Yes, there is an appeal in progress. But it has been dragging on for a looooong time. Having seen a small slice of what he is going through, I have decided it's much better not to alienate anyone. At least until I get tenure.

Dr. O said...

You might be interested in this posting from Science Careers.

female Science Professor said...

Dr. O, that link doesn't seem to work.

Dr. O said...

Sorry about that - I was a bit out of it yesterday. Here's the
posting again.