Friday, March 19, 2010

Changing the Rules and Raising the Bar

When a university revises its tenure and promotion code, faculty hired before the revisions should be evaluated according to the policy in place at the time they were hired. I have been indirectly involved in two such modification efforts. When the tenure code changed, the old code was used for faculty hired when it was in place, and the new code applied only to new hires, at least for the tenure evaluation.

Official tenure and promotion codes, however, don't contain much useful information about what the actual standards are for tenure and promotion in a particular department or academic discipline. You may learn some useful information from the official code -- for example, do you have to develop an international reputation for one or both promotion stages, or is a national reputation considered sufficient? -- but for the actual standards in terms of research, teaching, and service "metrics", you should consult the department chair, a mentor, or other senior faculty. In fact, in the changed tenure codes I just mentioned, the differences were so subtle, most of us had to be shown the changes (by an administratively savvy colleague) to detect the difference.

The criteria for tenure might seem mysterious to some, but there is a specific time by which the tenure evaluation must occur. Promotion from associate professor to professor, however, is more murky in terms of time and possibly also in terms of criteria of evaluation.

Last year I wrote about why some professors may spend their post-tenure careers as so-called terminal associates (associate professors who are never promoted to professor). When I wrote about terminal associates last year, I was surprised that some people prefer to be terminal associates, believing that they will do less service work at this level than as full professors, so I should add "by choice" to my list of reasons for terminal associateness.

One of the reasons I mused about involved syn-career changes in standards for promotion. I have no idea how many terminal associates remain unpromoted for this reason. That is, how many cases involve raised standards for promotion and:

1. an increase (but an insufficient one) over time in research productivity (however that is measured);
2. a plateau in research productivity compared to at the time of tenure (no increase or decrease); or
3. a decrease in research productivity compared to at the time of tenure?

There is surely no way to tell, but it is the first two cases that are relevant to this discussion.

At least with associate professors, there is (in theory) time to ramp up a research program to meet raised standards, without fear of losing your job entirely.

That's not easy, of course. If there is a gap in your funding record or a lull in graduate student recruitment, it can be exceedingly difficult, and maybe even impossible, to get a research program back on track, much less take it to a more active level. And if you are already active in research but are somehow expected to bring in more grants, that may not be humanly possible in some fields.

I don't think it is in a department's interest to have terminal associates. At different universities, I have seen a number of cases in which there was a concerted effort on the part of a department chair to jump-start an associate professor's lagging research program. These efforts have included providing time off from teaching and/or even some research funds or commitment of cost-shares for proposals or research assistants.

Of course there are also situations in which a department chair is so disappointed with an apparently terminal associate that there is no effort to help them, and instead the associate professor is assigned additional teaching or service responsibilities. I think that is quite fair, but ideally would only be resorted to after an attempt to help someone who wants assistance revising or revving up research activities.

Promotion to full professor at a research university should be a natural progression for someone who builds their research program over time, successfully advises students in research, and participates in teaching (and does it reasonably well) and service (institutional and professional). It should not be a step reserved only for those who work 80 hours/week for a decade or more and who are insanely productive in terms of papers, grants, or whatever else is valued in their field. Nevertheless, it should (and, I think in most cases, does) recognize a fairly high level of research, teaching, and service; the very things we are hired to do, and that, in some ways, become easier to do at the mid-career stage.

I experienced a raised tenure bar because I moved to a different university, not because standards changed at a particular university. Also, my assistant professor to full professor transition years occurred in the mid-90's to early-2000's, a time at which there were not dramatic changes in standards, at least not in my field or university.

Does anyone want to put dates on the most likely time for an associate professor to remain stalled owing to changes in standards rather to a decrease in research activity by the individual? To the extent that I believe this might be a factor, and in part for the sake of discussion, I propose that those hired as faculty at research universities pre-1985(ish) have experienced the most dramatic changes in tenure and promotion standards. Discuss?!


Suzi said...

This is probably more true in other areas than science, but there is also the possibility that the person earned a Ph.D. later in life, and began a tenure track job later, as well. This happens in education, when an experienced teacher goes back for the Ph.D., and then begins a tenure track job in their 40's or even 50's.

Anonymous said...

Deans or department chairs "helping" terminal associate profs and giving them assistance to do their jobs?? Just another reason why the whole institution of tenure should be done away with entirely. This is the 21st century for goodness sake, the pool of qualified postdocs eager for academic careers is vast. If someone isn't doing their job, even though they've been around for a decade and used to be productive but have stopped being so, kick them out and replace them with someone who will do the job better.

Anonymous said...

When a university revises its tenure and promotion code, faculty hired before the revisions should be evaluated according to the policy in place at the time they were hired.

Why? Is this just your opinion, or is there some document outlining academic freedom principles (or something like that) to justify this claim? I am inclined to agree with you concerning short time frames, such as a change in year 4 after hiring an assistant professor, who won't have time to change how they do research by year 6 when they are up for tenure.

But to me it seems crazy to make a policy change and 10 years after the fact, keep evaluating two professors in the same department according to different standards. I understand it could be frustrating to deal with raised standards, but that's life. Especially if a professor is already tenured, and getting cost-of-living raises each year, why should they get any more than their colleagues if they aren't keeping up with those colleagues? I don't see an academic freedom issue here, so why should senior professors be artificially protected from competition at the expense of junior professors by a rule that does not apply to any other profession?

The obvious cynical explanation is (and I honestly hope I am wrong about this): tenured senior professors realize that as other universities get better and compete harder for external grants, their own department won't keep getting grant money, attracting good students and keeping the teaching load down, unless someone does excellent research, but they don't want to raise standards on themselves to make this happen.

female Science Professor said...

You don't invest a decade or more in someone and then just kick them out because there are lots of eager postdocs around. In some cases a tenured professor's research activity slows or is interrupted for a good reason, and it makes sense for the system to at least try to help.

Anonymous said...

One possible reason for a slow advance from associate to full: the associate prof has realized tenure by receiving support from their academic spouse who is a couple of years behind them on the job ladder, who then gets an assistant prof job and needs the support in return. It is exceedingly difficult to have two assistant, pre-tenure professors in the same household and have a family, so some take the staggered approach. Full professorship will have to wait; I imagine this is why some don't go up for promotion 'by choice'.

John V said...

I thought I remembered some "terminal" Assoc Profs, but when I just looked for them at the three depts I've been in, all those with regular TT appts have moved up to Full. Only one unusual joint appt appears stranded.

I also found only one Research Assoc Prof, and I wrote a letter for his promotion literally last week. He had suffered from mainly doing math and writing code for larger, applied efforts, rather than lack of productivity.

My impression is that the difficulty of moving from Assoc to Full has lessened, not risen, in the past 20 years.

Kevin said...

I currently know only one "stalled" associate professor. He's the male half of a husband and wife in the same department. She's been a full professor for years. He's an adequate researcher and teacher, but not motivated to put in the extra effort to become a full prof, preferring to spend more time with his family and hobbies.

inBetween said...

I am an associate prof who experienced the worst of a few colleague's personalities during my tenure review. I had 15 outstanding outside letters, several NSF grants, and over 30 peer-reviewed publication, great teaching, popular new courses developed, and lots of service (was the pres of a prof org). But I was ridiculed and horribly mistreated within my dept such that I ended up being apologized to by the administration.

That experience was horribly psychologically traumatic and so I'm seriously considering never putting myself up for another promotion. I have tenure, I have lots of students, a couple of post docs, money to do research. Why should I give my "colleagues" another chance to unjustly ridicule me? What is to be gained, other than money and prestige of title, by being promoted?

Plague of Crickets said...

In my department there are three associate professors that have not been promoted, and are unlikely to be promoted unless they increase their research productivity. We have two others that may or may not end up stalling out. While it’s certainly true that our standards for promotion have been rising, they are by no means unreasonable. For the most part, these are people who have decided to devote more effort to other activities. Most have contributed substantially in various administrative roles, and at least some are outstanding teachers. Thus, despite their lack of research productivity, most make valuable, even essential contributions. They shouldn’t be promoted at a research university without also contributing to the research mission, but they also shouldn’t be marginalized (or fired, as one commenter suggested).

What galls me is the very small proportion of associate professors that entirely stop doing research and don’t increase their contributions to teaching and service. These are the people who should be fired. Unlike the terminal associates that take on more of the teaching and administrative burden, they drag everyone else down because others have to pick up their slack.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a good read:

Anonymous said...

Presented above by the first two anons are two suggestions for alternatives to double standards: 1) ABOLISH TENURE AND FIRE THE PROFESSORS!, and 2) give tenured professors who are not as productive as the rest of the department a fair salary with cost-of-living raises, but don't promote them or give them big raises or other big incentives unless they keep up in productivity, so long as many years have passed since tougher standards were implemented so that they have plenty of time to adapt.

FSP predictably responds to the first and ignores the second. Perhaps we will soon see a post dedicated to the crazy people she's met over the years who want to abolish tenure, represented as the only possible alternative viewpoint to double standards for promotion. She should thank anon #1; not since Larry Summers said that women are innately worse at science has anyone presented such an outrageous straw man that we can all enjoy beating to death, to help distract from thornier issues where the other side is not clearly wrong.

Meanwhile, outside of Black-and-white-ville, over here in Debatable-gray-area-land, I remain mystified concerning the source of the word "should" in the following sentence:

When a university revises its tenure and promotion code, faculty hired before the revisions should be evaluated according to the policy in place at the time they were hired.

female Science Professor said...

I selected the vague word "should", after a bit of thought, to cover situations in which (1) this is the rule but it is not followed; (2) this is not the rule (but it should be). At some universities with which I have been associated, faculty are evaluated under the tenure code in place when they were hired, and this has been enforced.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, Larry Summers did not put up a strawman in his remarks. I find it annoying when that case is brought up. He merely suggested--in private off-the-cuff comments--that it is a possibility that men were innately better at science than women, which might explain partly the disparity of men and women in math and physical science. He didn't say they were better, merely that it was one possible explanation. I don't think that explains the disparity at all, but given the physical differences between men and women, it is not a ridiculous hypothesis to suggest that the mental faculties between men and women might be different. Perhaps he is sexist, but there is nothing sexist in that remark. I agree it would be desirable that men and women had identical mental facility for science, but sometimes that which is desirable turns out not to be fact. The ignoramuses that had him fired--and at Harvard no less--apparently can't see that distinction. Scientists search for the TRUTH, not for what is convenient or what fits our modern prejudices, keeping open the possibility that not everything in life is a care bears fucking teaparty.

Anonymous said...

In my dept, we have several associate and full professors who don't do research anymore (no publication in the last 5 yrs), but they have the same teaching load (2/2) as us who do lots of research and bring in grant money. Our chair has no intention to change it, which makes us feel unfair.

Anonymous said...

FSP:"You don't invest a decade or more in someone and then just kick them out because there are lots of eager postdocs around. "

Two questions:
(a)So then why is it OK to do exactly this to postdocs? - after a decade of hard work and sacrifice in "training" they are pushed out of the pipeline and forced to leave science because of a lack of jobs. Meanwhile, those who do have the jobs can at some point start being UNproductive and not lose their job because of this thing called tenure. I agree with whoever it was who suggested getting rid of tenure. There is just no reason why - in a job market with vastly more qualified candidates than positions - the positions should be tied up by people who are no longer being productive while those who would be more productive are kept out. makes no sense.

(b) this is what happens everywhere else why shoud it be any different for professors? Where does this sense of entitlement come from?

Anonymous said...

Anon @3:58 AM:
1. Postdocs are significantly less expensive than faculty. And I don't just mean in terms of salary and benefits. I'm also counting startup packages, space usage (office and lab), and anything the department might do for the faculty member w.r.t. teaching and advising. Those are all costs that add up to a huge amount for faculty over time. After putting all that into a single faculty member, it is in the best interest of the department to try to recoup its investment by spending a little more on someone who's hit a stumbling block. Postdocs do not incur all those costs at the same scale or rate, so it is cheaper for the department to cut them loose. (I don't mean this to be harsh, just a reality check.)

2. It's not entitlement. Again, it reflects the cost to the department incurred by a faculty member and a desire to get a return on investment. And it doesn't happen everywhere else. In fact, if you look at other industries in which an employee at the highest level comes with a large cost (professional sports, for instance), you'll see time and time again the employer giving them multiple chances in an effort to get the best value from their high investment.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 8:47: Summers made his comments during a speech to faculty. He did not suggest this was a merely possible explanation, but said it was his "best guess" and was "probably" the explanation, showing no familiarity with the vast evidence in favor of alternate explanations. Furthermore, he was fired at Harvard for many failures, not just for that one speech, and the people calling for him to be fired were not simply incapable of making important distinctions.

Anonymous said...

You don't invest a decade or more in someone and then just kick them out because there are lots of eager postdocs around.

There are good reasons for tenure, but this is not one of them. Universities regularly invest six tenths of a decade in someone and then kick them out. In fact, one could interpret this academic ritual (get tenure or get fired with no second chance) as a strong rejection of the sunk costs fallacy that you propose.

female Science Professor said...

That's why many department are devoting a lot more attention and resources to Assistant Professors than in the past. Now many Assistant Professors get mentors and time off from teaching and there are lowered expectations for time devoted to service. Universities and department invest in tenure-track faculty, and it is in everyone's interests that they succeed. I think this is a good thing, and a big improvement over the old sink-or-swim approach. This "investment" philosophy is completely consistent with my statement about Associate Professors who may need help jump-starting a lagging research program.

Anonymous said...

That's why many department are devoting a lot more attention and resources to Assistant Professors than in the past.

And yet tenure still is not granted in many cases. So universities occasionally decide they made a mistake in their investment and fire someone because of it. Every organization has it in their interest that whomever they hire should succeed, but none of them except universities grant tenure. The investment mindset is not the reason that universities support the institution of tenure. There are other reasons but that is not one of them.

This "investment" philosophy is completely consistent with my statement about Associate Professors who may need help jump-starting a lagging research program.

Of course. But the statement about helping Associate Professors is not consistent with the suggestion that, until that research program is jump-started, one should evaluate them by different standards than other faculty. They won't lose their job because they are tenured. That said, why do they deserve any special consideration not granted to assistant professors? I have not seen a justification of relaxed relative standards that applies to senior faculty but not to junior faculty. No one is claiming that research is easy, or that it's easy to start again after a dry spell, or that there are not legitimate external reasons such as kids or medical problems, etc., that one's research could go south for a while. But everyone faces these problems, and assistant professors without strong research are fired no matter how legitimate their problems.

Why is it that a senior professor deserves to be treated differently in terms of promotion/raises/perks/teaching load/etc. than his or her colleagues, who are all also subject to these same pressures and chance events, just because the senior professor was hired earlier? No answer to this question is legitimate unless it compares junior professors to senior professors and highlights the fundamental differences. Any answer phrased solely in terms of the needs and concerns of senior professors, implicitly pretending that these concerns do not also apply to junior faculty, is just snobbish entitlement.

mOOm said...

In the British/Australian there is no expectation that everyone will eventually get to be "Professor" which is more like an endowed chair in the US system or even to Reader/Associate Professor which is equivalent to professor in the US system. In Australia the proportion of full professors is much higher at the highest ranking universities (such as ANU and Melbourne) compared to the lower ranking ones where sometimes a large department only has one or two full professors. I wonder why there is this difference?