Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Uniqueness of the tenure decision - Inside Higher Ed

Cathy A. Trower, a research associate at Harvard University who is leading a major study of the American professoriate, said she wondered if the professor involved realized that he was in danger of not winning tenure. And she said that while there can never be true assurances about who will and will not win tenure, colleges greatly reduce the chances of a breakdown (or resentment or anger) if people have a real sense of their odds.

“This may have come as a surprise to this individual — and that simply should not be the case,” Trower said. Colleges should be giving midpoint reviews ‘that send a signal of whether or not you are going to be successful.”

It’s also important for senior professors — for whom tenure reviews are in the distant past — to remember how difficult a period it is. “This can be very scarring and there is a stigma attached to denials,” she said. “It’s so brutal that I know people who have achieved tenure and then as a result of the process have left the academy.”

Of course people in any profession face disappointments over not getting raises and promotions. But Trower and others noted that tenure in academe has some characteristics that just aren’t widely replicated: If you don’t get promoted, you don’t get to stay on, but must leave; you are judged in part by peers with whom you interact daily; the process is extremely long and has multiple stages; and the subjective portions of the process (is someone a good teacher? was a book influential?) may be very difficult to make sense of.

Nelson of Illinois said that the system is sufficiently “crazy” that one can’t help but lose faith in it. “Let’s say you’ve published your first book and articles and they are great and then some goon on the committee says you haven’t done enough conference papers. The whole thing can come undone. Or you’ve got six letters and they are all positive except for one small criticism in one letter. Someone on the committee will say, ‘Ah. Someone had the guts to tell the truth.’ And suddenly you are in jeopardy because of one person’s whim.”

I've said before that I prefer an at will employment relation in higher education. That is, that my employer can let me go if they no longer desire my services - without giving a justification. Others tell me they could agree with me if other employers in higher ed did not use tenure. But since they do, job mobility is severely curtailed especially if your job separation was not voluntary. I concede the point.

What we are left with is a high-stakes decision with multiple decisionmakers and requiring the application of human judgment to assess a complex product. I believe some ambiguity is intrinsic to engendering good effort by the faculty member. Yet the institution has an obligation to set in place a system that is fair and consistent and includes checks so that the decisionmakers keep each other honest.

The strain on faculty probably is highest at new institutions or at institutions which are seeking to move from one quality level to the next. In these circumstances case history and institutional memory will be low, and there will thus be greater uncertainty about outcomes, and more chance for an arbitrary outcome. A young institution should be very intentional in laying out expectations, making them public to all, and by making reasonably sure that potentials pitfalls have been studied before rules and systems are adopted.

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Anonymous Acad Ronin said...

1) Hal Varian once remarked that Deans should be liberal with tenure and cheap with salary. That makes good sense, especially in an inflationary environment.

2) My (casual) understanding is that tenure used to come later in careers than it does now. However American Association of University Professors (AAUP) rules pushed forward the tenure point. This means that the tenure process selects for research programs where one can demonstrate ones ability quickly. That favors abstract theory and working with existing databases rather than qualitative research, collecting ones own data, or developing deep knowledge of institutions. It also disfavors risk taking. The persons who will have the least difficulty with these tendencies are those for whom these are not constraints or pressures. Subsequently, when serving as members of tenure committees or referrees, one can expect that they will favor the types of research that they found most congenial, and equate them with quality.

3) The institution bears the cost of false positives (giving tenure to people who shouldn't have gotten it) but little if any cost of false negatives (turning down good people). It therefore has a skewed loss function. Furthermore, the process is not self correcting. The survivors will view the rules they navigated successfully as clearly valid, and then point to the difficulties that the unsuccessful may have in getting a subsequent job as further supporting evidence.

3:59 AM  

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