Tuesday, September 25, 2012

There's a Dean For That

Deans Deans every where
nor any .. (something something something)

As I traipse through my academic existence, I keep finding new Deans I didn't know existed. Over the years, in my routine professorial existence, I have encountered the Usual Deans -- deans of collegiate units within the university and the various deans who have responsibilities for students, money etc. These Deans are typically "familiar" people, in the sense of having been long-serving faculty members; many of them were former department heads. I don't mean "familiar" in the sense that I (or most faculty) know them well, but they are familiar in the sense of having followed a similar career path as many of us faculty (before they veered into administration). They are typically well respected (and well paid) for the important jobs that they do. I have been fortunate to work with excellent deans and associate/assistant deans over the years.

However, many of the Unusual Deans that I have been encountering recently are a bit less "familiar" in this way. Some of them veered into administration very early in their careers, and some are deans of "unfamiliar" (to me) things, like programs I didn't even know existed. Many (most?) are in the humanities or social sciences, so are exotic to me for other reasons.

This familiar/unfamiliar, usual/unusual designation is of course highly subjective (FSPcentric), relative to my own existence, and in no way implies criticism or a negative opinion of these exotic (to me) deans. I do, however, find myself wondering, from time to time: why does that position require a Dean? The more deans I encounter, the less sure I am what the title even means anymore. According to Wikipedia:

In academic administrations such as universities or colleges, a dean is the person with significant authority over a specific academic unit, or over a specific area of concern, or both.

I suppose one could spend a bit of time pondering what, exactly, "significant" means, but this definition is, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying in that "specific area of concern" is vague, although I can see that this is the part of the definition that refers to Deans of Students, Research Things, and so on.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter, I suppose, whether someone who has significant authority over a specific area of concern is a dean or something else, except that, at my institution, Deans of Whatever tend to have higher salaries than professors. I think that can be a source of unhappiness among the hard-working professoriate, especially if there seem to be a lot of these rather exotic dean-people, deaning in highly specialized areas of concern.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tenure Times

A mid-career reader wants advice about writing a letter as part of the tenure evaluation of a candidate at another institution. In particular:

.. I don't know what the usual length, format, etc. is, and if/how tenure committees "read between lines" for certain cues, i.e. what do I need to do so that I send the intended message without inadvertently compromising it?

I have touched on this topic before, but I don't think I have ever discussed the specific information of length, format etc. My earlier posts on this topic started in 2007, then skipped a few years, then picked up again in 2010 with not one, not two, not three, but four posts on this general topic, then decreased to one in 2011.

Here are my answers to the reader's questions, although of course I hope that others will provide alternative information and suggestions from other disciplines:

Length: One page is too short, but how far you go beyond one page depends on how much substantive information you can provide -- this may or may not be a function of how well you know the candidate and/or the candidate's work. I think it may also be discipline-dependent. In several of the physical science and engineering fields with which I am familiar (and for which I have read external letters as part of the tenure evaluation), 2-3 pages (single spaced, on letterhead, 11-12 point font) is pretty standard, unless someone has really detailed knowledge of a candidate, in which case the letters may be slightly longer (but not by much). In a few other fields, however, very long letters seem to be the norm. For example, I have seen some astoundingly long letters for candidates in the math department. In these letters, the evaluators provided detailed descriptions of every article or other type of work produced by the candidate, in some cases taking us through proofs step by step. Some of these letters have lots of equations and read like lectures. I am not sure that happens in m/any other discipline (?).

Format/content: The request-for-letter cover-letter might provide some clues as to the desired format. Do they want you to address specific questions or topics? If so, you can do this if you want, using the questions as your framework for the letter. Or you can ignore the specific requests and write what you want. One thing that is good to address up-front, even if you are going to be a loose cannon with the rest of the letter/format, is how well and in what capacity you know the candidate. This sets the context for you letter, and is important information for people who will be reading the letter. If you don't have any other specific guides about format and are wondering what to write next, you could pick out a few publications (articles, conference proceedings, or whatever is most relevant) and explain why these are interesting and/or significant.

Something I do look for in the cover letter is whether those requesting the letter want me to comment only on research or also on other things. I may not feel that I have sufficient knowledge of the candidate's teaching and service (the typical 'other things' besides research), so I may not provide an opinion about this, even if asked, but at least I will know what the expectations are. This can be important, for example, if the request is strictly for comments on research/scholarship, in which case you may want to avoid mention of how great this person was on the organizing committee for the Science Conference Workshop Panel Thing. 

I wouldn't worry too much about the reading-between-the-lines issue. Some people do this no matter how you write the letter, and there's no point in getting psyched out about something you can't predict. I have seen letters that I thought were an unambiguous endorsement of a candidate -- letters packed with strong positive statements and substantive examples -- only to have a fellow committee member say But if they really thought X should get tenure, they would have put the word "very" in front of "spectacularly outstanding pioneering genius superstar".

So, don't worry about it. If you want to send a mixed message with both positives and negatives, just be clear about this and about your final opinion (Do you endorse this person for tenure or not?). If you want to be entirely positive, use lots of awesomely positive adjectives. And if you think the candidate does appallingly bad and pointless work, I am sure you can find some equally awesome adjectives to convey that. If you think they are mediocre, say so.

Probably the biggest pitfall -- in terms of sending a message you don't intend -- is if you compare the candidate to so-called peers. You may be asked to do this, or you may want to do this even if not asked. I refuse to do this because I think it is nearly impossible to do it in a fair way, and I have seen a few examples in which a letter-writer wrote X is a spectacularly outstanding pioneering genius superstar just like Z at Other Great University and I therefore support X 100% for tenure at Your University, only to have a committee member say But I think Z is an idiot..

If X is greater than or equal to Z, and Z is an idiot, then X must be.. some answer that depends on who is doing the math. Yes, I realize that this is contradicting my previous suggestion to forget about predicting what letter-readers might do, but I think this particular issue -- that of comparing people -- is a real mine-field.

Is anyone freaking out? Please don't. These are outlier examples that occur and are typically stomped on by the sane faculty members, who, believe it or not, have outnumbered the others in every case with which I have personally been involved in STEM disciplines. That is, I have not seen the outcome veer negative because of irrational read-between-the-liners.

My main advice is: just write a sincere ~2-page letter that has substance to it (examples, incidents) and an unambiguous statement of your opinion at the end and/or beginning of the letter.