Mysteries of Tenure

Timothy Burke has a typically excellent post about the problems with academic tenure. Not the usual "It's an abomination that prevents that Magic Power of the Market from working its wonders" complaint from outside, but problems from the academic side:

Oso Raro and Tenured Radical underline one of the biggest problems with the tenure system in academia: its mystery.

They’re both trying to write about a controversial tenure case at the University of Michigan, to understand the seeming mismatch between the public transcript of the candidate’s accomplishments and the private decisions of the candidate’s colleagues. The problem is that there is no way to know about the second. A person who is denied tenure can go public with his or her reading, but the people involved in the denial can’t, regardless of whether they acted in good faith or not. Maybe there’s something we don’t know. Maybe there isn’t, and the public reading is all that we need to know that something went wrong. The uncertainty drives both outsiders and insiders mad with distraction. It makes it hard on the people being tenured or denied tenure: you want to go public, reveal, to say, “There is nothing unknown here, no private secret”.

This is a huge problem, mostly because there are very good reasons for the veil of confidentiality surrounding tenure decisions. If you're going to make this sort of evaluation honestly, you need the people involved-- colleagues, external reviewers, students-- to feel like they can speak freely. This obviously precludes throwing the whole thing open later on: announcing "We denied Prof. Jones tenure because Prof. Jones (no relation) at OtherUniversity suspected her work was plagiarised" wrecks the whole thing, and will make the next Prof. Jones (no relation) think twice before speaking out, even if she has a very good reason to doubt a given candidate.

At the same time, that veil makes it difficult for candidates who have been denied to defend themselves, and it makes it very difficult for institutions to defend even well-justified decisions from people who have been denied tenure, and choose to make a stink about it. (I should probably note that I have no opinion on the Andrea Smith case that inspired the posts Burke cites-- I never heard of it before now (it's not my field), and I had enough trouble wringing sense out of Oso Raro's post that I wouldn't attempt to make a judgement based on what I do know.)

Burke also identifies a couple of other factors that make the mystery around tenure decisions particularly problematic:

The problem isn’t just mystery, though. It’s also mystification, the extent to which the parochial imagination of many academics leads them to believe that there is something different about the professoriate. In some ways, there is absolutely nothing unique about the confidentiality of the tenure system. When middle managers and professionals in other workplaces are fired, the same asymmetry of information applies. The person who is fired can choose to make a public stink about it, and that will circulate to the extent that the person is well-known in their profession or their community. The organization doing the firing often can’t say much about it for legal and professional reasons. By comparison, the tenure system is typically less arbitrary, more procedural, more knowable. If I were a vice-president at a bank–or even a senior administrator or adjunct faculty at a university–I could be terminated in much more unexpected, unfair or capricious fashion. You can object to the practice of firing people for anything but serious, documentable non-performance of their duties, but at that point, you’re really objecting philosophically to any labor market, objecting to termination as the whip hand of any kind of labor.

What makes tenure more fraught is not its secrecy, but its proceduralism. If I’m the bank vice-president, I can tell friends, colleagues and future employers that I was fired over a matter of principle, or by a boss whose ego was threatened, or because my bank was downsizing, or for other arbitrary reasons, and have all those narratives be perfectly credible. The existence of a lengthy dossier with evaluations from local colleagues, outside experts and students, a dossier evaluated in two or three or four separate confidential processes, seems to make the decision less arbitrary.

Of course, the crucial qualifier here is the "seems" in that last sentence, and this is the problem. While the existence of a thick dossier of reviews from external scholars may look objective and verifiable, that doesn't mean it is an objective assessment. There are any number of wholly irrational academic feuds out there, and some remarkably bitter divisions between groups of scholars in the same discipline. It's not that common in the sciences, but there are groups within some humanities disciplines that reject the entire methodology of other groups in the same discipline for political reasons. A paper that fits perfectly within the discourse of one community may have a form that looks completely inappropriate by the standards of a different community.

For a trivial but concrete example, consider physics compared to some other disciplines. The very top physics-specific journal is Physical Review Letters, which has a strict four-page limit-- the full text, all the figures, and all the references need to fit within four journal pages. This is the journal, though, so getting a paper in PRL is a significant achievement, and people within physics recognize that.

This is very different from the situation in other fields, though, where forty-page journal articles are the norm. To somebody from one of those fields, a CV listing five four-page papers looks like grad student work, not the production of a tenurable academic.

And then there's computer science, where conference presentations are the most important venue of scholarly production, while journals are of secondary importance. This is almost exactly the reverse of the usual situation.

Part of making tenure decisions is learning to navigate the swamp of different disciplinary standards regarding what's important and what's not. A tenure committee that is misinformed (whether negligently or maliciously) about the standards for a particular discipline can follow the appropriate procedures to an inappropriate decision, thinking all the while that they have a rational basis for what they're doing.

Finally, Burke also notes the consequences:

What makes tenure more fraught is also its consequences. There are a lot of banks and a lot of bank vice-presidencies, and a lot of other jobs that a bank vice-presidency might lead to. In some fields of academic study, there are perhaps no more than fifty to one hundred jobs total worldwide for which one might be qualified, many of them occupied by tenured faculty who can be expected to teach in those positions for the next two decades or more. For each open position, there will be many candidates, and anyone with a tenure denial on their record is at a disadvantage. Academics train for six or seven years, search for jobs for three or four years, teach for another six or seven, and then face the possibility of having to start over, in some cases with a near-total loss of the time invested in between. And that’s if you get lucky enough to get a tenure-track position in the first place, since the conditions of academic labor outside the tenure-track are exceptionally poor.

This may seem wrong to people who know the adage that "Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low." Note, however, that this is usually (mis)attributed to Henry Kissinger, a man in a field (politics) where there is literally no level of venality, corruption, or just plain incompetence that can permanently derail your career...

The job-market question is a very real issue (though, again, more of a problem in the humanities than the sciences). It's not quite true that tenure is a one-shot deal-- lots of people don't get tenure at the place where they're first hired-- but it sure feels that way. I know that had I not passed my tenure review, I would've had to think very hard about whether I really wanted to go through all that again.

So, you have a situation where the tenure case looks like a make-or-break moment for a career, which means that it's very important that decisions be made as objectively as possible, which calls for a great deal of proceduralism and makes confidentiality critically important. But this, in turn, means that when negative decisions are made, they can appear completely arbitrary, and there's not much that can be done to dispel this impression, or correct the arbitrariness. And, of course, the make-or-break nature of the decision gives people who have been denied tenure every incentive to kick up a huge fuss, which leads to all manner of accusations of bias and bad -isms, which are hard to defend against without breaking confidentiality, and on, and on...

When it goes wrong, it goes way wrong, in a big hurry.


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"And then there's computer science, where conference presentations are the most important venue of scholarly production, while journals are of secondary importance."

Even within subfields of computer science, the weighting is completely different. Within computer graphics, the single SIGGRAPH conference reigns supreme, with a 15% accept rate -- all other conferences and journal publications are a complete afterthought. In my own field (artificial intelligence) journal articles are more prestigious, possibly because there are at least 4 "top-tier" annual AI conferences (AAAI/IJCAI, NIPS, AAMAS, and UAI), all of which have accept rates closer to 20-35%.

I have participated in numerous tenure decisions and at various levels in the process. The differences in what is important, such as the number of pages in the physics journal or the importance of conference presentations in computer science, exist, but the job of explaining these nuances is usually done by the chair of the relevant department, and/or in the candidate's letters of reference. This is a very important component of the tenure process, and sometimes it is not done very well.
Bernard O de M

By Bernard Ortiz … (not verified) on 26 Mar 2008 #permalink

It's worth noting that the academic employment system varies a lot by country; a fair amount of griping about the US tenure system is about specifics unique to that system. It would be instructive if someone with knowledge of several such systems to make an in-depth comparison, I'd think, to get some perspective on good and bad features of each.

Call me old fashioned but, is counting the pages really a substitute for reading the papers?

It gets worse when those up the lines don't trust the views of the department and outside reviewers about what is the standard in the field, trust me. The move to college presidents being more CEO/Fundraiser types is not going to help in this regard.

Re: #5

"college presidents being more CEO/Fundraiser types"

The new head of the University of California system, from Texas, is to get $800,000 per year BECAUSE of his lobbying/fundraising prowess.

I have mixed feelings about that.

As a several-time Adjunct professor, anything I say about Tenure as such is distorted by some Sour Grapes.

I lost one job because a a bastard plagiarist whose ONLY refereed publication was a 20 years ago Phys Rev Letters where the two major authors have hundreds of publications, and the bastrad never had any more real publications -- but he was the damned Chairman, in a department where both me and my wife worked.

I'm not there anymore, but my wife survived the bastard's attempt (with his psycho alcholic Dean backer, since sacked as Dean) to fire us both. He got me out, but my wife has since been promoted.

Some ancient private universities don't even have Tenure.

And the precedent is that schools can de facto fire Tenure faculty when they trash an entire department or division.

Nobody's really safe any more.

Must go back to sleep now. 3 a.m.-ish, and it was a long day. Teaching teenagers all day, then grad courses at night. Plus research.

* returns to lurking *