Collegiality matters.

Abel has a thoughtful post on the horrific faculty meeting shooting at University of Alabama Huntsville this past Friday. New information seems to come out every few hours on the shooter, Dr. Amy Bishop, a biologist at the university who had been denied tenure, and I'm nowhere near ready to weigh in on the particulars of the case (at least, not with anything smarter than my viscera). But I do want to say just a little on a pair of questions Abel posed in his post:

  1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines?
  2. Do you feel that collegiality - or whatever you want to call it: teamwork, cooperation - should be an important factor in making academic tenure decisions?

I don't think tenure candidates ought to be judged on their sparkling personalities, their perkiness, their ability to play straight-man for the department chair's jokes, or their willingness to go out drinking with senior colleagues on a regular basis. A job evaluation that boiled down to a junior high-style popularity contest would be a very bad thing.

However, no faculty member is an island. Doing the business of a department, a college, and a university frequently involves working well with others. If a tenure candidate is unwilling or unable to work well with colleagues when that's what is needed, all the big grants, impressive publications, and teaching awards in the world won't matter to the colleagues who are carrying her weight or, worse, butting heads with her.

People smart enough (in terms of both intellect and wisdom) that you'd want to be colleagues with them for 20 or 30 years are not going to happily grant tenure to someone who is an absolute pain in the ass, who shirks shared responsibility, or who poisons morale in your department.

Of course, establishing concrete criteria for this kind of baseline collegiality is tricky. Then again, it's not always easy to discern from written tenure criteria exactly what level of research or teaching prowess will put you "above the line" either. And, I fully understand worries that to squishy a notion of collegiality might be misused so as not to tenure candidates who are "not our kind, dear" (or to tenure those who are better at schmoozing than at teaching or publishing).

Still, tenure is not like the SATs or even a report card. It is not a reward you automatically earn by getting a high enough score on each of the pieces of your professional profile being graded, and it is definitely not a medal in an individual event. The ability to work with your colleagues is part of the job. If there's reason to believe you can't (or won't) do that part of the job, then it's in no one's interests to lock you into that job for a lifetime.

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Eh, I know a guy whose department tenure committee voted to deny him tenure on "collegiality" grounds. The department is a trainwreck, and he refused to go along with their shenanigans. Fortunately, higher levels over-ruled the department vote, and he is now tenured.

I do not understand why anyone would fight to be tenured in a department that does not want them. Seriously: why would anyone go out of his or her way to be appointed for life in a corrosive work setting? Seems to me that is the moment to change institutions or careers, not to dig in.

It's a requirement for promotion in every other profession.

It is my opinion and experience that, where tenure considerations are concerned, the number one issue, at least in the biomedical arena, is extramural funding. Hence, a real ass, who has no social skills, doesn't care about departmental responsibilities, shows not even an inkling of colleagiality, but is loaded with R01s, is assured a tenure. We need to be honest about that fact, which we all aware of. As long as the weight of extramural funding in tenure consideration is as heavy as it is today, colleagiality and any other consideration are negligible. I strongly believe that any departmental chairperson whose interest is to keep his/her job would not agree to let go of the goose that lays the golden egg just because the egg comes with some gooseshit.

By Solomon Rivlin (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Yes. Exactly.

Dr. Rivlin is correct to a certain extent. As the Chair of an APT Committee, I can say that we do look at collegiality - ESPECIALLY WHEN THE CANDIDATE IS BORDERLINE. Someone with a RO1 and a R21 along with deep involvement with Departmental affairs and collaborations has a much higher chance of getting tenure than someone with the same grants and lousy disposition. Most of the Asst. Professors that come up for tenure have two RO1 grants or equivalent - they are yet to lay the golden eggs. Those who are well funded and indispensable are usually tenured already. But mostly money talks.
It has also become difficult to obtain multiple NIH grants unless they are collaborative efforts. Hence not being collegial is going to hurt you one way or the other.

By TritonX100 (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Hot tub?

Can you stand a little contrarian dialogue today?

If we look at tenure like getting married, is it?, then collegiality matters more. In business relations like partnerships, which the departments are described as, the spouse is most often the one to cause dis-satisfaction and discord : 'You are not getting enough credit, they are not being fair to you, etc. etc.' You are going to consider the spouse as well?

If preferable, how preferable is collegiality? Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen wanted collegiality, but was that ever the most important quality? A grouch who is expert, best at his job, is he or she preferable?

So, is it not said, claimed, that one point of tenure existing at all is that the professor can say or do what he or she takes for the truth without fear of reprisal? The point is to serve truth? But has tenure now switched over to supplying an iron rice bowl where the gang, department, is going to stick together?

Or is this the point of tenure, to remove profit motive so that the professor can pursue something not driven by profit? Not exactly? The institution can have a profit motive, meaning wants more money?

Or is this tenure : mainly a job benefit, like insurance, to hold employees, to shield them from the whims of administrators who find that they don't fit in? so the tenure committee is going to try to do in advance under the label of collegiality what the administrator might have done later which was to be prevented? Oh.

In the business world, in the U.S, where most people are to be found, when the salesman gets up in the morning he has no job, he has to make his job that day, life insurance, real estate, cars, stocks, songs, widgets, warehouse stock, drugs, textbooks, furniture. Better get moving. If the salesman does very well for a few years they will "cut his territory" so that the company gets even more business. Excelsior. Compared to tenure, is this fair?

Who is sticking up for the primacy of truth? which is where you find it, including in obnoxious individuals?

Which throws a different light on universities, powerful rich institutions, a light which would lead Kurt Vonnegut to say that a university is the last place you would look for an important writer, you might look in the kitchen but not on the faculty. Which leads back to the discussion of how science is done.

Let me start with a disclaimer: Of course I will not excuse her choice to take the lives of her colleagues.... my goodness, no job is worth that! As others have pointed out, with her record she wouldn't have had much trouble finding new employment (although with the dual-career issue it would have been more difficult). Given the incident with her brother (accidental or otherwise) I am sure more will come out with respect to her mental state.

Yes, in a perfect world, "collegiality" in a tenure review would only be taken to mean "isn't a complete asshole". But academia is far from perfect. Our departments are a collection of social misfits of various stripes (the price of genius or the price of book-reading over partying, I don't know which), but we also labor under gender discrimination, overt and covert. (As noted by the collective wringing of hands over the "leaky pipeline" in STEM fields and NAS/NRC and other reports).

Two things strike me about Bishop:
1. In the Decator article cited, Bishop is called "arrogant" (by herself and others). Would people have been as bothered by this arrogance if she had been male? Since I have yet to work in a department that does not have one or more tenured arrogant (male) assholes, I will assume that "collegiality" rarely if ever enters into a man's tenure review. (I am certain that I've met tenured female assholes in academia, I just can't think of any off the top of my head at the moment).

2. Bishop had 4 children and (I think) an academic for a husband. Are we sure that her "lack of collegiality" was only her personality, and not her surely time-pressed lifestyle that did not allow for any free time to socialize, at work or outside of it? Again, based on generalized data from the gender-bias-in-academia literature, I can only assume that Bishop had significant domestic time committments outside of work that prevented her from engaging in activities that she may have perceived as time-wasting (even if others in the department did not).

I bristle at the idea that an arrogant woman with active teaching, research, and service committments should not receive tenure simply because she was not "collegial" enough.

By ecoaudrey (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

I think the real issue here is Sanity Matters. Safety Matters. Workplace Violence doesn't just occur in a post office and mental illness plagues those with every sort of IQ score, as does the damage done to bystanders and relations of those with mental disorders.
Is is extremely difficult to fire someone with an unspecified, undiagnosed and untreated mental disorder. Yes. Can it be dangerous to reject anyone in love or at the workplace. Yes.
We do not know yet how much her mental health issues were observed and could have been a concern to her colleagues. Clearly, she was enabled by those who knew her to go forward and to return to Harvard with no responsibility, no true vetting out of the risks she posed, and no reality testing when she shot her brother and held a gun to someone in a car dealership minutes later.

An academic department functions as a team to carry out its core educational mission, and a demonstrated willingness to function as part of that team should clearly be expected for anyone hoping for a lifetime appointment. I'm amazed when people conclude on the basis of RateMyProfessors reviews and publication lists that someone "should" have been awarded tenure. The fastest runners in the world will never win a relay race if they can't handle the baton.

And Mr Rivlin expresses a very cynical view on external funding. Yes, in the sciences at an R1 funding success is critical for tenure. After all, one doesn't have much chance of a lifetime as a leading scientist if one can't garner the resources needed to do one's science. But teaching (both graduate and undergraduate) is also important. In my experience, poor teachers often read the writing on the wall and jump to industry or other job opportunities before a tenure denial.

By Anon R1 dean (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

I agree with Anon R1 Dean. Grant funding is not only important, but indispensable in health sciences to run a successful research program. getting tenure also depends on your teaching and service (to the institution and the profession).

Collegiality does not imply hanging out with colleagues for a beer after work. It means collaborating with other scientists, sharing reagents (clones, cell lines etc), serving on committees, helping departmental activities (arranging seminars, meeting with the speakers, help with student selection and admissions and a myriad other things) and being a good colleague in general. No department can run smoothly unless everyone pitches in, whether it is teaching or research. Yes, collegiality does matter and should matter for tenure, within reasonable limits. Remember, tenure is for life at most institutions.

By TritonX100 (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Stemwedel is right: Colleagiality matters, a lot. For men and women alike. It doesn't mean playing golf or drinking beer with colleagues--what working mother has time for that?--it means working as a team on committees, etc, and most of all respecting your colleagues, notwithstanding often very real differences.

By Peter Pancacle (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Eh, I know a guy whose department tenure committee voted to deny him tenure on "collegiality" grounds. The department is a trainwreck, and he refused to go along with their shenanigans. Fortunately, higher levels over-ruled the department vote, and he is now tenured. Notably, this process really did make him uncollegial and unwilling to participate in service, but that's the price they pay for their shenanigans. Meanwhile, he's a good teacher and researcher, and the students are better off for having him on the faculty.

I should also note that the union was unhelpful, and it's the administration that saved his ass. Of course, the senior crew of the trainwreck is involved in the union and friendly with union leadership. So much for the union protecting faculty from the administration.

"And, I fully understand worries that to squishy a notion of collegiality might be misused so as not to tenure candidates who are "not our kind, dear" (or to tenure those who are better at schmoozing than at teaching or publishing)."

... Good morning, dear Prof. Stemweder!

It not only "might be misused" - it is being MASSIVELY misused all over the world, and the process is an exponential avalanche ... For Goodness sake, but the UAH story has regretfully a dreadful potential for continuation, all of us must try to somehow prevent this !!!

And there are not only some ephemeral "worries", there is a dangerous situation better described with a physical term "polarization", it is a drastic barricade between the True Scientists and the "academic schmuck" ...

This is the true lesson taught by the heart-breaking tragedy of killing three innocent people by a true and talented scientist at UAH last Friday ...

@ Anon R1 dean

You wrote: "In my experience, poor teachers often read the writing on the wall and jump to industry or other job opportunities before a tenure denial."

There is no "writing on the wall" unless you put it there. Some of the worst teachers have tenure, we all know it, and are liable to say things like "writing on the wall." You are probably part of gang marginalizing what you call "poor teachers."

This sentence you wrote is by an enemy of an open society and obnoxious, I would deny you tenure perhaps, and hoist you with your own petard, or if tenured put your parking spot across campus from your office that I had moved to the basement. You would not fit in at all.

Your imagination does not allow that? If not, it's because you are cruel and have no empathy for others. That's a mental defect you know and can be interpreted that your touted team function is nothing more than servile groveling for your job.

This is a nice blog and the moderator may not allow this comment, we'll see, nonetheless your sniveling egoism has rankled me and I'm offering it up. If she does not, I am not angry, and I may put it elsewhere.

Janet, I completely agree with your thoughtful post. But... I dont think it will work to include a collegiality criteria in tenure decisions. It will almost certainly be misused so as not to tenure candidates who are "not our kind, dear" (or to tenure those who are better at schmoozing than at teaching or publishing). And this would be bad for those with "different" (but lets hope not violent) personalities and the lone single woman who is quite shy in a department full of older married men. Besides, most tenure reviews already require that the individual contribute to the community (called committee work or adminstration). Also, most universities have rules that allow for dismissal of faculty that are disruptive.

What happens when it is the department that is uncollegial, making it hard for new faculty to find collaborators and therefore get funding etc.?

Dear Coleagues,

I would greatly appreciate your educated attention. Please find below the story told by a colleague who knows Dr. Amy Bishop very well - personally - since decades.

It is most probably difficult to be "collegial" to the person portrayed in ZOREAN's story ... but in principle not impossible - ain't it ?

To get to the original URL address, just kindly click on my nick (this is one of the most recent comments to one of the blogs by Zennie62 at the

2/15/2010 12:15:49 PM

donquixote5, janersM and borninAL,

Thank you for your support - the heartache and guilt that I have been feeling is keeping up at night. When I first heard about it on the news, all I heard was her name ( nothing about her degree or where she was from ) and my heart sank, I knew it has her.....

But more importantly, I wanted to answer the question about why she picked science and "loners" in science.

Amy didn't choose science, it chose her. It was the only area that she truly enjoyed and was good at it. It was also an area where she didn't need to make small talk or socialize in order to BELONG. Amy easily fit into meeting/discussions on neurons, oxidation, etc. AND PEOPLE LISTENED. It was the only place in her life in which this happened - where she existed.

I know this because she told me. She never emoted, but one time out of nowhere she told me about this. Amy and I went to college together and then I worked at the Longwood Medical Area while she was getting her PhD an doing post-doc work. So we saw each other often. She also told me that day that I was the only person at college that even acknowledged her and because of that, that she liked me quite a bit. I nearly bowled me over ! In all our interactions there was NOTHING outwardly that would indicate she liked me. NOTHING ! But I took her word for it that day. It broke my heart. We never talked about it again, though we did talk about the "incident" as she called it ( her brother's death ) - I know why she killed. All these headlines and news and postulating make me so sad...because it is very, very simple, and I know it deep in my heart. She was a soul that couldn't be saved, no matter how badly she wanted to be.

It wasn't about being denied tenure, it was about her not being "enough" again - and having the only community that she felt a kinship with, one in which she didn't have to emote or do small talk, banish her. Where was she going to go ? Who would have interest in her ? Where would she get the human contact she wanted so badly.

Yes, donquixote5, there are many "loners" in science - I should tell you that I spent 23 years in molecular biology - but those scientists are either very shy, or awkward, or just so focused on their research that they become myopic. But they welcome a chance to talk about their kids or the weather or the Red Sox. Amy is and was always vacant.

Finally, regarding the sociopath: sociopaths are usually very charming and manipulative and have no conscience. So JanersM is right in stating that she is not one. She was very blunt and didn't have an ounce of charm. She was also not manipulative. Anything having to do with navigation the psyche was out of her ability.

Lastly, this is the only place that I have "talked" about this - outside of with my husband and another college classmate ( who characteristically, doesn't remember her ). This has been a real outlet for me. Thank you."

The collegiality issue is a double edged sword. Say I do not like the prospect of having to associate with unlikable person for the next 20 years. If they are borderline, I might just vote against them. On the other hand, if my good buddy is borderline, I might be inclined to make a positive vote. Now if neither person is borderline on the rest of the criteria, the issue probably wouldn't come up.

In some departments there is a formalized process of year to year evaluation if non tenured faculty. The idea being that if someone is going to be denied tenure, they are denied the ability to claim they are surprised. If the process is not done honestly, it can backfire, of course.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Yes, collegiality is important, but as Dr Freeride notes, it is difficult to measure safely and effectively (rather like 'participation' by students)

The issue reminds me of the 'work to rule' industrial action favored by certain British unions -- if everyone did only what was formally required for promotion, departments wouldn't function.

I don't think proper functioning requires _everyone_ to be collegial, though. You can get on perfectly well with a fair fraction of people who don't do teamwork, as long as they are sufficiently effective at their jobs and don't try to exploit the rest for unreciprocated assistance.

I'd be worried about refusing to promote someone because of lack of collegiality -- it's too fuzzy and the 'not our kind' issue is a real one. I'd be a lot happier about using it positively to promote a candidate who was borderline on research but who helped the department keep functioning.

First, let me be clear that I am not the Steve G of comment 11. I am, however, a department chair at a liberal arts college and collegiality is from the perspective of a small department a very big deal. Research and teaching are essential, but so is service and service does not merely means warms enough seats on faculty committees, but rather serves the department and institution in helping to advance its goals. Someone who is a personal detriment to the department is failing in terms of service no matter how much grant money or how important the journals are that he or she publishes in. Service is mushier than the other categories and the place this question ought to be taken quite seriously.

Early in my career, I voted yes on a tenure decision when I should have voted no. After I realized this, I considered how I should proceed in the future. I decided that if I had to think about whether a person should be tenured or promoted, I would vote no. I am well convinced I voted correctly in every instance after making this decision.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

@ SteveG 20

What a song you sing, as if management by objectives, and it deserves a reply. Perhaps you will be able to tell that I don't approve.

You don't get it Steve. When you feel you need to state your position of authority, like the dean did, your opinion loses value toward zero and you are the hollow man, chair or not, and your statement is laughable for its lack of presenting evidence, reasoning, and understanding. From what you wrote there is no reason to believe a damn word you say.

We know what you mean when you write such vague crap as "serves the department and institution in helping to advance its goals." No surprise, that means what you decide it means, or shift it to, or decide to supply when you feel the need. All the while the candidates have to be your kind and please you, narrow-minded crabbed twerp who has some people kissing his rear and thinks it's a big deal, thoroughly repulsive.

Not only do you not get it, you have no clue, are not even close, and it's offensive, and your lack is a disappointment to persons who love learning. What cheek, what two cheeks, and you should be working in a dairy dip talking up twinkie strategy telling kids they are a "personal detriment" there as if that had meaning outside your noggin. You'd get a paycheck there too.

The problem with making "collegiality" a criterion is that it is ambiguous (more so even then publication or teaching quality) and highly sensitive to point of view given power asymmetries in academic departments. What about the female asst prof in the architecture department who won't put up with the locker room behavior of an all-male senior faculty? Collegiality has to go both ways, and we all know it doesn't. The pompous windbags who loiter in the upper echelons of many departments are the masters of passive-aggressive non-collegiality, and got tenure when all you had to do was show up and not sleep with students until after the final. Waiting for senior faculty to shove off mostly involves biting your tongue, because you can bet that vocally demanding respectful interactions (or filing complaints) will be deemed "un-collegial" when tenure review comes up.


Eh, I know a guy whose department tenure committee voted to deny him tenure on "collegiality" grounds. The department is a trainwreck, and he refused to go along with their shenanigans. Fortunately, higher levels over-ruled the department vote, and he is now tenured.

I do not understand why anyone would fight to be tenured in a department that does not want them. Seriously: why would anyone go out of his or her way to be appointed for life in a corrosive work setting? Seems to me that is the moment to change institutions or careers, not to dig in.

So many here have an apparently total lack of understanding of what it takes to run a real Department, in a real college or university, in the real world.

No law firm or engineering consultancy or, for that matter, no Google or Microsoft or Apple, would tolerate people with a total inability to work as part of a team containing other human beings (i.e., collegially). I cannot imagine why they would think that a university science department should be in any way different.

I suspect that 'collegial' is going to be interpreted by a lot of people (as I initially thought) as 'smarmy, focuses more on schmoozing their way up or being a bubbly idiot than on getting their work done', but I suspect in this context means 'competent scientist who knows how to work both as an independent laboratory person and in collaboration with other fellows'. In short, a well-adjusted person.

I see in zorean's description of Amy shades of someone who most likely had a difficult time of things, and while I in no way condone what Amy did and think she deserves whatever sentence the judge hands down, whether it be life or something else, I can't help but feel some measure of sorrow that events and whatever insecurities or not-built-up-enough defenses she had made her feel that she had to do this as well when tenure denial is quite clearly most often not handled by the person whose tenure is denied shooting up a room; this was a lose-lose situation for everybody. I am pretty introverted, had a fairly difficult life early on, I'm not terribly outwardly emotional (and even when I feel strong emotions, I tend to be far less animated about it than many - when I feel like crying, I do it quietly, and when I'm angry I can't sustain it for long without getting tired), am not HUGE on small talk (oh, I can make small talk reasonably easily, I just hate it), and I'm not a 'loner', per se, but I can do pretty well with a small amount of human contact. If I were in her situation, I might well have felt a similar level of despair, though of course, there is always the option of going elsewhere to get a position (correct me if I'm wrong). She seems like she may not have considered all her options of how to continue doing what she loved.

Either way, she could probably have rectified the situation without senselessly murdering three other biologists.

Spiny Norman, I'm looking at this from the point of view of a student, but, uh, I don't know if Google and Microsoft and Apple are the best comparisons. They're corporations whose main aim is to make money; a university's main aim is to create knowledge and teach.

By Katharine (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

In all of this discussion of the possible misuses of 'collegiality' as a criterion, and concern that it may be used as a cover for 'not our type, dear' misses the point that this particular department was already notably diverse: just look at Amy Bishop's victims. And look at their record of service to the department. Whatever might happen at other universities and other departments, the public record makes it clear that this department was not mis-using the criterion of 'collegiality'.

By Consultant Observer (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink