Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not Qualified to Judge

A not-uncommon complaint of tenure-track faculty, particularly during the tenure decision year, is that some of those who are deciding their Fate would not get tenure under today's rather rigorous system of evaluation. How can the process be fair if people unqualified for tenure today participate in decisions about the tenure of others?

It's a complicated question because, although the tenure bar has definitely been raised with time, you can't know whether someone who had too-low-for-tenure-today productivity way back when would rise to the challenge of today's standards or not.

I am working very hard here to be fair and balanced about this topic. I certainly have done my share of grumbling about certain senior professors who seem to have succeeded for mysterious reasons. These particular senior professors have published only a few no/low citation papers, got few or no grants, and mostly got by on their charms, which in some cases are not considerable. How did they even get tenure back then? These extreme cases are, however, the exception, and becoming more rare with time.

I am cynical enough to think that some tenured professors can't be trusted to make a fair evaluation of their more junior colleagues, whether because they have no idea what it is like to be constantly working on manuscripts and proposals or for their own nefarious reasons. In some departments, there seem to be a few professors who reflexively vote no in tenure cases; perhaps not so much in an aggressive effort to deny the candidates tenure as to make a point that no one is good enough to deserve an easy tenure process (even if they themselves had this luxury when they got tenure in the Jurassic).

This is probably related to the phenomenon in which some spectacularly unproductive professors are particularly aggressive about questioning the superior records of younger scholars (faculty, researchers, applicants for faculty positions). These people clearly have Issues.

In my limited experience, however, these unpleasant individuals have been vastly outnumbered by more reasonable people. Perhaps I have been fortunate, but this conclusion is consistent with what I have seen during my interactions with the tenure process in many other science and engineering departments, at my own university and beyond.

In most cases, I think the system itself has enough checks and balances to keep these unfair naysayers in the minority. I am not saying that the system is completely fair; every year, deserving candidates are denied tenure and others with similar records attain it. But I do think that the process of frequent evaluation at 1-3 year intervals, although stressful, provides a lot of data and accountability to somewhat demystify the process.

It's not possible to deny a vote to all those tenured professors whose scholarly records fall below the current standards for tenure, but it is possible and necessary for everyone voting on someone else's career fate to think very carefully about what standards are being applied, whether these standards have been clearly and fairly communicated from Day One, whether the candidate has had the time and resources to fix any issues revealed during the 1-3 year reviews, and whether the candidate has met the standards for tenure according to the norms of the discipline, the department, and the university. If these requirements are emphasized and openly discussed by the department leaders with the tenured faculty, perhaps it will be more difficult for the unjustly critical to cast a hypocritical no vote.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

How did they even get tenure back then?

They were only competing for papers, grants, tenure-track jobs, and--ultimately--tenure against fellow white d00ds. About 60% of the adult population of the US wasn't even in the game, so the odds were stacked in their favor. Now the game--while still rigged to a large extent--is much less so.

So I disagree that these white d00ds would have "stepped up their games" in today's environment. They simply aren't that smart or talented, and got where they are via white d00d privilege.

Female Science Professor said...

I think some would have "stepped up their games" (sports term?) and some would not have, but we can't make a blanket decision about who would have and who would not have.

John Vidale said...

three separate points:

What about the few hundred million people who vote for President each election - how many are qualified themselves? I'm not sure why it is a problem if some published less than the current standard.

My recollection is that it was TOUGHER to get tenure when I was a student. Is there some evidence, aside from the probable fact that technology lets us work faster now?

The much more common problem in my experience is the reverse, less accomplished senior faculty being reluctant to oppose tenure in weak cases, from the real fear of being criticized for their own records.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I believe that a tenure decision within the department before it goes to the university admin level also depends on what the department itself wants to go through or needs. My PhD advisor (in the biological sciences) was approved for tenure with one paper from her work at the university, one grant from her first year, and three miserable graduate students whose "letters of support" emphasized her enthusiasm about teaching undergrads. A few years earlier, the next senior junior faculty had been denied tenure and the department had recently gone through a failed hire. SO, I think part of the tenure approval was because the department wanted her to continue enthusiastically teaching the intro course. Maybe I think that because I am still a little bitter about grad school too...

Anonymous said...

In my own Department, I have been very pleased to see (once I got inside the closed room) how seriously ALL of my colleagues take these decisions. I do not think anyone, research active or not, fits the profile of a senior person voting NO or YES for the wrong reasons. The discussions we have had (for strange timing reasons we had multiple tenure decisions this year) have focused on the relevant issues, and have grappled with the standards we should apply, even when we are making a decision none of us would prefer to have to make.

Mark P

Tina Z said...

I agree with John V on his point about technology speeding up research. Even in my undergrad days it took a lot longer to conduct research without online data banks, searches like Lexus, or sites like Jstor. And that was just for undergrad papers. I can now can do in months what it took years to do in the 1970s, 1980s, and even early 1990s. I wonder if the senior people who have stepped up their game simply embraced technological research aids.

amy said...

This is a timely post for me, as I'm up for tenure this fall. I've got one senior colleague who has published maybe 4 papers in 38 years, and who had only one pub before tenure. My other senior colleague was similarly unproductive at the beginning, but has published a lot in the last ten years. Sometimes it irks me a little bit that the standards have changed so much (while the teaching load has actually increased and the service requirements have stayed the same). Plus, these two guys had stay at home wives to take care of all the household issues. They were able to buy nice houses, work 40 hours a week, spend time with their families, etc. I don't think they really understand how different life is for a junior prof. these days. They have no trouble shifting unwanted service tasks onto junior faculty, and I think that's because they still think we have it easy. But I still think they're qualified to judge my tenure case. They're smart, and they're not unduly biased or out of touch with the profession. Of course, depending on how my case comes out, my opinion may change!

Hope said...

Just out of curiosity: do people who vote “no” in tenure cases have to justify their decision, perhaps in writing? Maybe the system would work best if the Tenure Committee had to produce their reasons in writing for voting “yes” or “no” – like decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. It might then be easier to hold the unreasonable naysayers accountable.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

I'm a physicist. The oldest remaining professors in my field were almost all hired during the big post-sputnik boom; a period when the money (allegedly) flowed like water and departments were expanding all over. Those that I have talked to tell tales of a few of their fellows getting hired and even tenured very easily indeed, though they all seem to feel that they had to work for t, at least a little.

Well, the money is still there in some sub-fields, but the days of rapid expansion are long gone and the process is muchos competitive.

But I can't find it in me to resent those lucky bastards. Envy? Hell, yeah. But not resent.

Pagan Topologist said...

Hope: No, votes are by secret ballot. Sometimes, when nothing negative has been said about a candidate but there are lots of "no" votes we wonder how to write a letter effectively conveying the reasons for the recommendation, or what people's misgivings may have been.

I would like to believe that people take these decisions seriously, but many of my colleagues seem to be motivated solely by politics, wanting to weaken a field they do not like, for example, or deprive a senior person they do not like of a powerful junior collaborator.

But as with the third law of thermodyanmics, you have to play the game. Refusing to participate can only hurt candidates' chances, since abstentions count as negative votes.

inBetween said...

You also have those professors who had a really hard time getting tenure themselves, so they intentionally are nasty to junior faculty going through the process. I love that one, happened to me. Pay-it-forward revenge?

Maybe there should be a rule that if you had a really contentious tenure case yourself, you can't write-up someone else's case, ever.

EC said...

Ultimately, times change the way things are done and the expectations of certain positins change. As long as we have people working in the same position for 30+ years, they will be passing judgement or making decisions regarding those who are now in the role that they were in 30 years ago and this "generation gap" really cannot be avoided.

Ironically, this situation is amplified in academia because of the tenure process. Without tenure, these older folks may have moved onto other things but tenure ensures that the same folks are likely working the same jobs 30 years later, making decisions about those now up for tenure.

Kevin said...

In our university, our department has to write a 5 page letter explaining why the candidate should or shouldn't get tenure, then the dean has to write a letter, then the secret ad hoc committee has to write a letter, then the campus-wide committee has to write a letter, then the provost has to write a letter. All in all, there is about 20 pages of documentation about why the decision went the way it did. I've seen disagreements between the different levels (department +, dean -, committee +, ...), but I've rarely seen a departmental vote that was not unanimous---and none in my departments. I would regard a split vote in a department as a sign that the department was in serious need of reorganization.

I have seen some escalation of tenure requirements, but most of that happened in the 70s. The requirements have not changed much in the last 30 years.

Pagan Topologist said...

Wow, Kevin! I have been tenured since 1974. In the years since then, I have seen only two unanimous departmental votes. You must be at a department with extraordinary collegiality.

Ms.PhD said...

all your posts about tenure decisions are equally true re: hiring decisions.

Anonymous said...

why can't the old fogeys who don't meet today's tenure criteria themselves (and just lucked out that they got tenure long ago when it was easier) be denied a vote in today's tenure decisions? what's so bad about that?

Or how about if these old fogeys are evaluated alongside the junior colleagues. The juniors are being evaluated for tenure, the seniors are being evaluated for their right to vote on the juniors.

Katrina said...

There's a very human dimension to this though (aside from the out-and-out malice you suggested in some cases). Nobody feels like they "cruised through"; everyone feels like they worked hard to get where they are.
So when they see someone who has, say, more published papers in a shorter time, their reflexive response could be "If they're cranking out a paper every 3 months, they're obviously not as good as the two papers that each took me five years to write".
I'm not thinking about the tenure context - which is not a situation I am in - but just in the general academic community, when people make off-the-cuff comments about others that pretty well sum up the above.