Friday, July 27, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Ambition and Decorum

A tenured, Canadian correspondent writes:

I never used to have ambition to reach "full" level as it seemed beyond the reach of most women academics. Now, however, I am rethinking my view. I have sole Canadian authorship on a US/ Canada textbook project, and I will keep doing new editions for the Canadian market for at least 2 more rounds (for a total of 3 editions). I have a monograph in press now with a US press, and I have an edited collection with a UK Press. I publish on average one short (10-12 PAGE) and one long (25-30 PAGE) article per year, and generally a book chapter for a collection every year or so (maybe 18 months).

I am a member of grad faculty, and this year I will travel to Ireland as a visiting scholar. In short, I already have the kind of international profile that can garner promotions to Full Prof for those "old boys" now being promoted. I know I'm not an old boy, and I don't have the years and years of accumulated service yet. I've only been a full time prof since 2001, and only finished my PhD in 2000. I'm not quite 40, but will be this year.

So here's my question:

Given that I already have more research results than those recently promoted to full status at my (now changing from primarily undergrad to comprehensive research U);

assuming that my research pace continues at roughly the rate outlined;

and that earlier promotion means better income and benefits for a longer period of time...

I would like to hear your thoughts on the appearance of being indecorous in applying too early for promotion. I am thinking that I'd like to apply for full prof inside of 8 years, but my PhD advisor (who just acquired her own promotion to full prof) admonished me for even speaking of it at this stage (reminding me that I am but a child in the academy).

There was an issue about going forward early for tenure, and I was discouraged so strongly from going in year 3 (when they said I would appear arrogant before senate) that I waited for year 4 (which is still one year "early" in the sense that it's prior to our school terms that require we apply by year 5. We get only one shot at tenure; you either succeed or must resign).

Do I really have to be at least 50 before I can apply?

This is a wee bit close to home.

The short answer is, go for it. Apply on your merits, accept victory as your due, and let those of lesser vision cluck and mutter. Their bitterness is not your problem.

As for the longer answer...

Real achievement never happens without ruffling feathers. There is no such thing as a famous, high-achieving person who is also universally loved. If you stand out, you will command attention, and some of it will be negative. Mascots are universally loved. Leaders are not.

Put differently, nobody will tap you on the shoulder and say 'it's time.' It's never time. You have to make it time.

I think of the extreme concern about decorum as culturally female – the 'good girl' – and I suspect that it's probably one of the most powerful obstacles holding high-potential women back. (Just this week, the Chronicle reported on a study that showed that obese high school girls are far less likely to attend college than their thinner counterparts, but it also showed absolutely no relation between obesity and college attendance in high school boys. Tellingly, the effect was most pronounced in districts with the least obesity – in other words, where it stands out most. The hostility directed at the 'fat chick' gradually becomes self-doubt, which becomes self-fulfilling, with real long-term consequences. It was one of the most disturbing things I've read in a long time.)

I'm all for civility, but to see a term like 'decorum' used to keep people in their place strikes me as fundamentally perverse. To suggest that a young woman with ambition is somehow unseemly strikes me as, well, what's the word I'm looking for, completely f-ing insane. To suggest that it's arrogant to ask for what you're actually worth, well, you get the idea. Using self-effacement to win approval doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense over the long term. The better you are at self-effacement, the less there is to approve of.

(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of bashing self-effacement while using a pseudonym.)

On a prudential level, it's at least possible that someone might look at you cross-eyed for being 'too young' to apply, and vote against you. But if that happens, you have other options. You can walk. You can appeal, and sue the person who applied an illegal category. (I'll admit not knowing how Canadian law treats age discrimination.) You can try again the next year, and offer the bigoted morons a chance to save face by righting a wrong. After all, if they say 'no' the first time, you're no worse off than if you hadn't applied. Or you can let them win by not trying.

More basically, you may need to allow yourself to break away from the sway of your advisor. If you want to sit at the grownups table, someone may have to move over to make room. That's okay. Let them move. You're a professor now, every bit as much as your advisor is. Your advisor can be wrong and you can be right. Conflict doesn't imply failure. Step up.

In my teaching days, two of my proudest moments came when I noticed that the written work of a couple of very quiet female students far outshone everything else everyone else produced. I told them so (these were two separate classes), asked them to contribute to class discussions, and the rest of the semester (in both cases) was a sight to behold. All they needed was permission to show how good they actually were. They didn't want to call undue attention to themselves. I had to assure them that it was, in fact, due.

It's due. Claim it, and claim it without apology.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Dean Dad - I'd love to agree with you, because I want to live in the world -- but especially the university -- that you describe. But for those of us who have lived in departments where there is hostility -- I think your questioner deserves to hear another side.

She has one chance at tenure, she said. If she has witnessed and is reporting fairly accurately the closed social networking system at her school (which of course we don't really know) -- she may have a point to be worried. If the backlash could be severe -- I would want her to slow down and do some research.

Talk to a few past chairs of the tenure committee if she can; talk to a few candidates who might have gone early, some who did not. Find someone she thinks is publishing at the same approximate rate that's male who went up for tenure in the last two or so years -- what did he do? And what was the decision on his tenure?

I am all for women owning their successes -- just not at the cost of her tenure decision.

I was like her and some encouraged me to go up early -- but the chairs of the committee said that no one had ever gotten it when they did, even if they were "good enough" because they were punished for arrogance (in my system one could apply again, but still, not something I wanted to have happen to me) -- something I learned in the first 5 minutes of talking to them -- and so it made me rethink my decision. I waited and it sailed through. EVERYONE told me it would because I 'played the game' and it was nice to really not worry about the tenure vote. There's something to be said about that too!! Especially if your questioner is a worrier, like I am!
Close to home for me too. I agree with everything Dean Dad says. (I'm a bit confused by anon's comment; doesn't the woman in question here have tenure? If she does, then it seems like she has nothing to lose by going up for full early.)

Anyway, I would just add that in addition to the "good girl" phenomenon, there's also a STRONG sense in academia that "nice people" don't engage in (what some call) self-promotion. It's almost like some people consider it beneath them: that's what people in *business* do, so we can't possibly do it. It's very moralistic and weird.

My advisor (and perhaps this woman's) is a classic case of this, and she shudders at anything that looks remotely like "hubris," (what any normal person would merely say is "justified pride in accomplishment.")

I say: Do a great job. Don't be afraid to be proud of the great job you're doing. And ask for every perk you can early and often, because no one else is going to ask for you.
Why is the advisor the only source of advice. I would encourage Canadian to speak to someone at her institution -- a Chair, a Dean, head of the promotions committee -- etc. and get a bead on this. By now she should have some allies/friends among senior faculty and/or administrators who can give advice. There may be an official or unofficial time between tenure and promotion, and it's worth checking that out. But otherwise, if you meet the criteria for promotion, I'd agree with DD and Maggie May: go for it.
Is this a women's issue or is this an academic issue? I can see it either way. Regardless of which this situation is, I highly recommend a book that came out a few years ago, "Women don’t ask : negotiation and the gender divide" by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Babcock and Laschever demonstrate that women face significant challenges in the work world and their personal lives simply because we don't ask for what we want and deserve. It's a very interesting, scary, and worthwhile read, based on firm research, not just pop-psychology and wishful thinking. I'd highly recommend it to your Canadian correspondent.
the hubris thing, yeah...I think maggie may is right about that blocking our ability to self-promote appropriately and be justifiably proud of accomplishments.

it's just that anything that smacks of hubris (even if it isn't) could easily be rejected. especially in a woman. hence the good girl thing.

so the advice is, just do it anyway? Well. that seems like it may or may not work. I guess in the end, her principles would be intact and if it works out, great. I think what anonymous is saying is that it could just as easily go wrong/be misread.
As a fellow Canadian I'd like to say that the "hubris thing" is even more accute up here in the land of self-effacement (aka Canada). Canadians are known for our self-deprecation and inability to toot our own horns; there is a culture up here that generally looks down on shameless self promotion regardless of gender. If she is as awesome as she says she is she'll need to present herself as prepared but not arrogant, so striking the right tone will be important.

I think that Canadian should carry on doing stellar work, do some research about how to apply for full status at the earliest possible date and gather some allies in her department.
Tenure first. If she has tenure, than, as others have said, go for it. If not, do the tenure thing as soon as it is possible under the rules of the institution...then the application for promotion a year or two later.
The way you get a university to give you the things you've earned is not to ask nicely, it's to demand it by getting outside offers. If you're as under-valued as you think you are, then another univeristy should be happy to offer you more. It's not disloyal to figure out what your options are and it's a good reality check.
I want to weigh in on the importance of others, as well. I'm not arguing with self-fulfilling doubts, or the power of individuals, but I would echo and re-stress the structural constraints here, and throughout - fat girls don't only attend college less often because of self-doubt. They are also treated more poorly, not just by students, but by faculty and staff. I would imagine that's the case higher up as well, if less obviously.

Again, not saying the letter writer has no agency or recourse or anything; just that structure and norms and stuff are also important.
First Anonymous: Unless I'm misreading, the letter writer successfully sought early tenure in 2005, and the question at hand is seeking promotion to full professor.

General comment: Institutional norms vary, but at R1s, at least, it is typical to spend 6 years as associate professor with tenure before being promoted to full professor. However, in my field there are always exceptions, and I know several people who became full professors as quickly (i.e. 8 years past PhD) as the letter writer is proposing.

That said, at least for tenure decisions, it is not unusual for standards to be significantly higher for candidates who go up "ahead of schedule". This makes no sense to me, but for instance I know of a 4-year teaching-focused college which has this set out explicitly in it's very formulaic review process. The letter writer may wish to investigate whether such a system is in place at her college.

As (a later) Anonymous said, there's nothing like a outside offer to get promotions/raises, etc. (Unfortunately at some universities this is about the only way to get such things, but that's another story...)
Canadian wonders about the propriety of applying for promotion to full professor early, as she did (successfully) for tenure.

a) In some systems, such as mine, 6-8 years is the normal pace.

b) Where did Canadian's statement that a promotion to full "seemed beyond the reach of most women academics" come from? I hope nothing more than bad mentoring. Still, she is productive and confident now, and only concerned about appearances.

c) The promotion rationale is merit, not timing. That said, promotion committees, deans, and the like may take timing into account for complicated reasons, mostly unexamined, and I suppose it is wise to try to anticipate this by, again, keeping the focus on merit. It certainly helps to be diplomatic since university folks, like everyone I suppose, can be notoriously petty on personality issues. So while being a good girl may have its benefits in terms of getting along, waiting longer to get promoted is not one of them. (I second the recommendation of the Babcock/Laschever book.) If you are going up faster than normal in your world, your exclusive argument is that you've met the threshold faster than normal.

d) Did I mention that threshold is measured by merit? This is trickier. Steady productivity may not add up to a strong case. It is necessary to publish regularly, and in some systems this may matter most. In others the key metrics will be impact, influence and leadership. In putting your case together, stress these. (Plus adequate or better teaching and service.) Comparing only your raw numbers to other full professors is risky for that reason, among others. Good outside offers can grease the wheels of justice but, in contrast to offers that bump salaries to market levels, they more rarely turn a weak promotion case into a successful one.

e) I cannot emphasize enough Susan's advice of consulting plenty of others -- especially on-campus reviewers -- to get the lay of the land, and discounting anyone who suggests that timing is a concern for a successful associate professor of 7 years plus. Or the need to repress the anticipation that being a woman poses obstacles to having your record fairly evaluated. Women have greater challenges balancing all demands on their time, energies, etc. (or even getting published and comparable pay), but your academic resume will more likely stand on its own for promotions. Besides, what can you do about it in the application, besides grate, unless this is an equity-based request?

Randall Crane

p.s. Arrogance is an "exaggerated" sense of one's own importance. But successful academic researchers (skillfully) self-promote in everything they write. If they don't believe they have something more important to add -- in print -- than the next person, why are they in this business?
In addition to the point here about leveraging outside offers and talking, informally with the chair, who will have a chance to weigh in, a very important thing to think about is the quality and number of outside letters that the candidate can get. These will play an even more important role than in the "normal" promotion process.
Thanks all for the great insights. When I said "inside of 8 years", I meant from the point of tenure... so I'm thinking of applying before 2013 (whihc would be 6 years post-tenure). The usual length of time to sit at the associate level is 10 years at my institution. BUt if all goes very well, I could see going forward for promotion to full as soon as the next edition of the textbook, and the edited international collection come out (2009). That would be just 3 years post tenure award, and means starting to assemble my dossier in deliberate ways now.

Anyway, you are all correct about learning to ignore the bizarre dynamics (not uncomm in my peer group) of maternal advisors who never really want to see us as their peers, but only as their protégés.

Seeking other advisors will be the trick. But as time moves along, I'll certainly try to make mentors out of the encouragers rather than the discouragers.
nothing to add. I just wanted to say: another excellent post and comment thread!
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