Monday, December 15, 2008

Award Angst

** Reminder: The deadline for the Statement of Purpose Essay Contest approacheth: Saturday, 20 December 2008 **

'Tis also the season to consider the subject of award nominations and the bizarre process of nominating and evaluating faculty for awards that recognize outstanding work in the various components of a professorial job (research, teaching, service). In fact, 'tis almost always the season, as there are many such awards, but right now this is on my mind because I have recently been directly or indirectly involved in at least 4 different award-related efforts.

Some academic awards are just nice pats on the back and allow you to add another line to your CV with the name of some obscure award that won't impress your mother because it isn't the one award she's ever heard of for scientists. Others have real significance for your career, particularly those that come with unrestricted research funds or that increase your visibility in your field.

A few issues related to awards and the evaluation process are troubling me. At the moment, my plan is to devote 2 ± 1 blog pots to discussing various topics related to ethics and diversity in the nominating, evaluating, and awarding of awards. For example:

What do you do if you are on an awards committee and have a routine conflict of interest with an award nominee and so cannot vote or comment on the nomination, but you have 'inside' information that would probably eliminate this person from consideration if the information were shared with the rest of the committee?

Do you honor the restrictions of the conflict of interest and say nothing or do you speak out to prevent a grave injustice? Does the answer depend on the nature of the inside information or does the conflict of interest prevent intervention in all cases?

Presumably the information is relevant to the professional activity for which the award would be awarded. For example, someone can get an award for outstanding research or teaching even if they steal candy from babies, refuse to help blind old ladies cross the street, and leave anonymous obscene comments on blogs. Unpleasant but legal behavior is not relevant and should not be considered, though there are perhaps extreme examples of non-work related activities that might make someone unsuitable for a professional award. In those cases, though, a person may be less likely to be nominated for an award.

What if the inside information involves knowledge of false statements in the nomination file? Other nominees might also have false statements in their nomination files but these would only be detected if another awards committee member knew those nominees well. Is the imbalance in level of information about nominees sufficient reason to honor the conflict of interest and overlook false statements (a.k.a. lies) or should lies be revealed if they are known?

Does it matter what the award is? For example, I was once discussing a particular situation with my husband, and he was disgusted by the very existence of a certain nomination and the problematic aspects of it, but he concluded "Who cares if Professor X does get some award?" until he asked what the award was. When I told him his response changed to "Oh, if it's that award, you need to say something."

His other response was "But be careful. You don't want to appear to be a vindictive back-biting hysteric from a dysfunctional academic unit populated by frauds when it's really just this one person who should never have been nominated."



Anonymous said...

What if the inside information involves knowledge of false statements in the nomination file?

If you know that some info in the nomination file is false, is there a way to demonstrate the falsehood of the information without revealing privileged info? I'm struggling to think of a CV item that could only be falsified by looking at privileged info--conference proceedings are generally public info (even Gordon Conferences at least list speakers and titles on the website), ditto for publications and patents and most grants and awards. Numbers of students mentored might not be as easy to verify, but I don't see how the actual number would be a secret that you can't divulge.

Is it a matter of a statement in the recommendation letter or letter of application or something? There, I suppose that the amount of credit a person claims could matter. For instance, if somebody says "I led the team that discovered X" when you know that so-and-so was a bit player, how privileged is that info? If you can't say outright "This person did hardly any work and probably shouldn't have had his name on the paper" surely you can at least ask "Has this person really had a sustained involvement in this work? Has he had other publications on it? Was he PI on a follow-up study?"

If you know about some nasty things that this person did to people that he works with, that is a difficult call. If this info was divulged to you by a co-worker or student in confidence, that person has to be protected. How private are the prize deliberations? What sort of information is the committee even allowed to consider?

Anonymous said...

Apologies if this is submitted twice!

you love these tough questions don't you :-)

As many of your readers probably already know, nominations for these awards are typically made by people at a relatively high level in an academic institution who may or may not actually understand the significance of the nominees work.

When you have relevant information and you have recused yourself from a committee, there are still ways to bring things to light.

What I do in cases like this is to speak "in confidence" to the committee chairperson. In person is best if at all possible. Then it's up to the chairperson whether or not the information can be shared with the rest of the committee.

Another option is to discuss it with the relevant administration who submitted the nomination file--they may be completely unaware that there are any issues with the nominees CV, etc.

And last but not least is the backstabbing snarky approach where you tell all your friends what a jerk/idiot the nominee is! More satisfying but probably less effective...

Anonymous said...

At a school I was formerly affiliated with, a certain professor was nominated for the university's equivalent of the "best teacher ever" award. The problem was that anyone affiliated with this person KNEW that their teaching skills were very sub-par, but it was politically expedient for this professor to get a good teaching award on his CV.

The people who nominated the person coached a few students (graduate and undergraduate alike) on what to say in their statements and called in some favors with members of the award committee. Next thing you know someone who doesn't deserve it has a teaching award.

Everyone in the department knew it wasn't deserved, but rather than being outraged, they just felt sorry for the prof that DID deserve it but wasn't granted the award.

One person tried to speak up, but to no avail - it was rather crappy actually, and it took away all of my respect for that award. I am now cynical about such university awards...