Friday, March 28, 2008
Transparency and Reciprocity
[T]he 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...
One of the frustrations of administration is that process is grievable but judgments aren't, so when people disagree with judgments, they attack process. (“This is an outrage! How was this decision made?” or its close cousin “It isn't so much what they did, but how they did it.”) In many cases, the same people who routinely decry administrative paper-pushers are also the first to allege procedural irregularities when something happens that they don't like; they rarely see the contradiction. Since many processes are relatively cut-and-dried, the way to attack them is through character assassination – allege bias against whatever trait is at hand. And it's incredibly hard to prove you weren't thinking something, no matter how far from your mind it actually was.
To make matters worse, the rules of confidentiality are such that the victim of an adverse decision is free to take to the hills with a megaphone, accusing all and sundry of nearly anything, but the folks being accused aren't allowed to comment. In the public sphere of the college, that can look like stonewalling or taking the fifth, which, in turn, looks like guilt. But it isn't. It's respect for the process.
Folks who call loudly for transparency need to think really hard about what they're asking for. Anything transparent is also recorded, and can and will be used against you later in the court of public opinion. The quickest way to drain a meeting of content is to transcribe it. Simply put, you can have candor, or you can have transparency, but you can't have both. (That's why I write under a pseudonym.)
Full transparency would involve letting the entire college community know every perceived shortcoming of every denied candidate. (“We fired Professor Jones for the following 8 reasons...”) I don't know of any other industry – none – in which that holds. And to imagine that literally adding public insult to injury would reduce stress is simply incoherent, unless you make the assumption that tenure will effectively become automatic.
If every referee's comments are public record, good luck getting honest comments. What would actually happen – you heard it here first – is that a game of competitive puffery, or damning with relatively faint praise, would ensue. The rules would become inscrutable. (For a real-life example, see letters of recommendation.)
I'm arguing for finite but renewable multiyear contracts, with performance expectations (and job protections, such as academic freedom) written explicitly into the contract language. (That way we aren't relying on an extra-constitutional notion of 'academic freedom' as a freestanding right. We're relying on contract law, which is much sturdier and much more widely understood.) Use the same system of employment as the rest of the known universe. Write the expectations down in advance, so decisions aren't so surprising. And instead of transparency, which simply can't co-exist with confidentiality, go with an ethic of reciprocity.
With the tenure system, one side has all the power until it says yes; then the other side has all the power. Unsurprisingly, a system in which one side has all the power leads to abuses, some of them flagrant. A system based on reciprocity all the way through allows for the possibility of actual fairness.
Tenure and transparency simply can't co-exist. Opaque power will be abused. Enough of the star chamber, the power imbalances, and the agreeing-not-to-notice just how abusive academic culture has become. Fairness rests on reciprocity. Until then, we'll just have to keep questioning each other's motives in the name of preserving open inquiry. How's that working out?
That does seem excessive. But the more pressing issue is transparency from the point of view of the candidate --- which could reduce their stress --- and I don't see a priori why they shouldn't be given their complete file in the event they are denied tenure. You argue
If every referee's comments are public record, good luck getting honest comments. What would actually happen – you heard it here first – is that a game of competitive puffery, or damning with relatively faint praise, would ensue. The rules would become inscrutable.
but the thing is that theses are already true about referee comments in my experience. No one wants to be the hatchet-person and ruin someone's career, and often folks just refuse to write for someone they don't feel they can strongly recommend, or (as you say) damn with relatively faint praise that can be plausibly interpreted in either way. (Of course, declining to comment is supposed to appear in the candidates file but typically doesn't since the review committee can always call a potential referee "off the books" beforehand to see if they're willing to write.) This doesn't mean, though, that you can't make useful judgments based on the letters. For instance, you can look at who wrote them. Think of movie ads: no matter how bad the movie, the reviews quoted are always suburb, yet you can still make a judgement by looking at the bylines of said reviews.
In every post I've seen of yours about tenure, this is as specific as you get about how this contract system would defend academic freedom. Maybe it would work in northeastern states with strong faculty unions, such as the state where you and Tenured Radical (who wrote a similar post recently) live and work. I'm far less convinced it would work in, say, Alabama, or Texas, or Idaho. In many parts of the country, even the circuit courts of appeal are stacked with good-ole-boys who could never be relied on to rule against a university who fired (or failed to renew the contract of--same difference) a self-avowed Marxist, or anti-war activist, or even just someone who publicly questioned the judgment of a provost.
I ask respectfully: can you please write a post in which you detail exactly how these renewable contracts would protect academic freedom, rather than asserting it in cavalier parenthetical asides in which you assume it is self-evident, and in which you seem to assume that the situation in your state would hold for the country as a whole? Thanks...
I have yet to see a proposal that protects people like me. And I have to tell you that there comes a point when wondering every April whether you have a job for hte next year gets really old.
Though I can see some downsides to tenure, for the life of me I can't imagine what the profession would like like without it, since it shapes so much of our professional and personal lives. For example, I wonder if we could have the same sorts of specialization in a system without tenure. If I were had a renewable contract that was not in fact renewed, where would I go? There are probably as many jobs in my area of expertise as there are colleges and universities in the US (I would think that each English Department needs one specialist in my area), but if those are filled, what happens to me if my contract isn't renewed? Moreover, my state isn't exactly overflowing with colleges and universities, which means that seeking new employment would require long-distance relocation. It would probably be in my interest to become a generalist, rather than specialize in an area that most schools need (but still need only one). I don't know if I am making myself clear - but I suspect that if your proposal replaced tenure, our jobs would come to resemble corporate middle-management, with gains in "flexibility" and losses in specialization.
One more thought: I met some present and former students from the New School, who told me that that institution was in fact experimenting with renewable contracts (and this is only hearsay). In the process they were producing a two-tiered system: a tenure-track and tenured faculty, whose primary responsibility was research; and a faculty on renewable contracts, whose primary responsibility was teaching. I find that particularly disturbing.
And this, to me, is the biggest problem with moving to contracts. Who decides what goes into the contract and what the expectations are? Do people in different fields get different contracts? Are distinctions made between fields in which people publish alone and in which people co-author publications? (Tell a person in English she has to have 20 publications in five years and it seems like a tall order indeed; tell a person in the sciences that number, and it doesn't seem terribly onerous.) And what about differences for the numbers on teaching evaluations for people who teach certain kinds of classes (my numbers when I teach in learning communities are typically a full point below when I teach in stand-alone courses) or who fall into groups that typically get lower evaluations than other groups (women, ethnic minorities)?
See, all of the above is insane. No person could figure out all of the specifics necessary, nor could one person - a dean, say - have the expertise to evaluate professors across disciplines. And I don't think you could continue to put that evaluation on a group of the faculty member's peers because those people ultimately will go up for review, too, and so they won't be able to make a recommendation that doesn't acknowledge that fact.
I'm not saying that the tenure system is perfect, but I think it's better than what you (in a not terribly specific way) propose.
Oh, I know. Strictly speaking, the professoriate are not employees so much as priests and priesteses pursuing a higher calling ... blah, blah, blah.
Spare me the high minded bromides of the tenured class. I will dance a happy Dance Macabre when the tenure system is ended. And hopefully, I'll still be working so maybe I can enjoy a few years of not having to use trains to get to and from all of my teaching jobs.
"I have yet to see a proposal that protects people like me."
I'm with second line on this: welcome to the rest of the working world.
The only time I EVER had a contract in my career as a (non-teaching) professional was during my community college stint, and even that was a one-year thing with "we can fire you whenever, we just have to pay you off, and you can quit whenever" terms.
Which is not to say that "at-will" employment is fantastic, only that it's pretty standard. I would love to see more unionization all the way around, inside & outside of academia.
"I wonder if we could have the same sorts of specialization in a system without tenure. If I were had a renewable contract that was not in fact renewed, where would I go?"
I think that opens up perhaps a larger problem with the academic job market, which has been mentioned here & elsewhere before. Too many people are being trained for jobs that don't exist or are vanishingly rare.
Life in a capitalist system can be wrenching & painful; the academic world is not exempt.
"nor could one person - a dean, say - have the expertise to evaluate professors across disciplines"
Well, my bosses have had limited understanding of what I do, which is somewhat in the nature of the kind of position that I have. And yet I have managed to have evaluations that are mutually agreed to be fair & appropriate.
(Not that, in my contract days, evaluations had any bearing on my contract. They've meant more in my non-academic jobs, where getting a raise actually had some relationship to performance, instead of reflecting the whims of the legislature. But I digress.)
I am not an academic, obviously, but I think this topic could stand some addressing by people outside of academia who are NOT hostile to academia.
We recently had a tenure case based on excellence in scholarship. The outside reviewers kept saying that the journals in which the candidate published were quite good. But what they were asked to comment on was the quality of the candidate's work, and only one (of six) did so. Everyone else said, "Nice journals." Thanks a bunch.
Teaching assessments are even worse. All too often outside reviewers know the candidates personally, so even without the warning about lack of confidentiality, what do you suppose we'd get?
And, having said all that, tenure is preferable to many of the alternatives (see Susan's comments above). And unionization seems to me, from the faculty's point of view to give up too much (if I were an academic administrator and the faculty unionized, I'd argue that, having chosen to be "labor," the faculty had just given up control over the product--the curriculum. But I'm a hard-ass.).
Sometimes, it's a second-best world.
No one said anything about "shity." You're the one who equated working under the same conditions as every other working American with "shitty." That says a lot about you and the tenured class.
My point was simply about fairness. Why should the tenureds get lifetime security? What makes them sooooo special?
And please don't wheel out academic freedom. Besides, in this day and age academic "freedom" issues seem to be about protecting the right rather than the left.
On the issue of specialization. Maybe some fields are too specialized. It'd be easier, perhaps, to find the next job if you hadn't narrowed your expertise down to something as thin as a hair. And as for having to move to find the next job? Happens in other markets as well.
I think Dean Dad is right when he says: "With the tenure system, one side has all the power until it says yes; then the other side has all the power." Abuses happen on both sides of that equation. Having been on the receiving end of bad treatment by someone who feels there are no consequences for their actions within a system who empowers that feeling, I can say for certain that something should change in that system. And I've also seen the other side of that equation where the institution lords the power over the faculty.
Maybe Dean Dad's specific suggestion isn't the answer, but seriously, as many times as this comes up, with no one really touting it as the greatest thing ever, maybe someone should start really looking at alternatives that help everyone.
what's to stop colleges from renewing people's contracts for the first 10 years of their professional life and then holding their feet to the fire or firing them after they become "too expensive"?
The same thing that stops General Electric from doing that with Engineers (or whatever) that have gotten expensive after 20 years of 8% pay raises. Those people are your experts. They’ve got 20 years of experience and are (in theory) better at their jobs than the new kid with 5 years experience and 60% of the pay. If that’s not the case than why SHOULD the older people make more?
My university's administration would indeed decline to renew the contracts of faculty members with higher salaries;
-or they would offer you a contract for the exact same pay. Because, to them, you’re not really worth what you think you are.
Though I can see some downsides to tenure, for the life of me I can't imagine what the profession would like like without it, since it shapes so much of our professional and personal lives.
It would be like working for a lab at GE. Or for a think tank somewhere.
For example, I wonder if we could have the same sorts of specialization in a system without tenure.
Probably not. You’d probably pick your course of study with an eye towards what would be marketable. I know a lot of engineers that are studying up on issues related to fuel cells and batteries at the moment.
Who decides what goes into the contract and what the expectations are? Do people in different fields get different contracts?
Why not? I’ll bet you that if this idea were implemented the salary for an English professor would go down because the market is flooded with qualified applicants. Ask and adjunct. I’ll also bet you the salary for a chemistry professor would go up because the loss of security would make teaching less desirable than industry.
No person could figure out all of the specifics necessary, nor could one person - a dean, say - have the expertise to evaluate professors across disciplines.
Probably correct. But, GE (or any large company) has figured out how to do exactly this with both researchers and accountants. I’ll bet you quickly see a world where the department head (or something similar) becomes a more difficult position.
In response to contracts, well, that's why you need a union. Individuals negotiating with the institution lose every time.
As for the problem of right-to-work states, under my proposal, institutions in them wouldn't be allowed to opt out of the tenure system. For them to give up tenure, they'd have to give up that legislation.
Market forces work both ways. After a few years it’s obvious that Evil State U treats its professors like dirt and goes through them like Kleenex. This makes it harder and harder to get new professors (or the union gets militant). The greedy evil managers fail to accomplish their objectives and start trying to figure out how to improve the situation. They eventually come up with a system that works ‘well enough’ for both sides and life goes on. Most professionals neither love nor hate their jobs. I think most proffs are the same way. Check your RYS if you want a example of profs who think it's a shitty job.
Lemme see, I can either get a government or industry job with excellent pay and great benefits (probably around double what I'm currently making, if not more), or I can continue to work for crippingly low pay while having all the job security of a McDonald's assistant manager and being under the thumb of an administrator who would rather fire me than give me a raise.
There is no blanket "American labour law." Laws vary from state to state, and collective bargaining agreements vary from school to school within a given state.
We can either have "confidentiality" or "candor?"
[false dilemma 101]
I came to academia from government service (yeah I know, time to "get a job!") and in government we need to have both transparency and truth- hiding behind "confidentiality" won't cut it.
Here's the deal, weasel boy: if you aren't willing to have your tenure committee evaluation subject to "60 minutes" level of scrutiny, then you are WRONG!
What, you want to make petty little snarky bullshit comments about a candidate to sink their career, and then hide behind "confidentiality" after the fact?
That "Dixie Chicks" logic doesn't hold water.
If a tenure decision won't stand up to scrutiny in the light of day, then it was DE FACTO a crappy decision to start with.
This should be SO OBVIOUS as to not even need saying . . . "confidentiality" is how "Boss Hogg" mentality survives in the first place. I want my record open for all to see; and I want the committee's comments/rationale subject to just as much scrutiny as my record.
The thing is that -
a) being able to be fired does not de facto make for a shitty job
b) in a market where people are being fired, that means their jobs are available, so there is some protection IF one maintains one's skill set, is generally known to be competent and to work with integrity, etc. In publishing this is especially true because most people have lost jobs for one reason or another at some point.
c) My limited anecdotal experience is that not firing people at all makes my work life much more hellish because that means competent people are trying to work around incompetent ones.
d) I'm not really that up on academic freedom but I am a bit skeptical that tenure really provides it in a meaningful way. Because don't researchers have to get grants and everyone has to publish somewhere? And what about issues like stem cell research?
and e) publishing pays really badly compared to comparable corporate communication work, and people still compete hard for publishing jobs... because some people want to write, edit, art direct, or head up magazines that talk to people. I don't think that if tenure were abolished everyone who wanted to be a professor for whichever thing attracted them (research, teaching, childhood dream, combination thereof) would suddenly vanish.
I teach in an evergreen discipline and at one of the schools at which I teach, adjuncts out number tenured by a 5 to 1 ratio; at another, the ratio is 4 to 1. At both these schools it's not at all inconceivable, and in fact is highly likely that in, say, 10 to 15 years there will be 2 or 3 tenureds left and 12 to 15 adjuncts staffing the entirety of the department. In both instances, the administrations have made it crystaline clear that they will not replace the 7 or so retirements that are guarenteed to occur over the next 5 years.
So to those here who decry the idea of renewable contracts in lieu of tenure, I suggest they take a cold, hard look at what is already well under way in the evergreens nationally. You can bitch and moan all you like about how renewals will be handed out, and about how it may be unfair etc., etc. The fact remains, tenure is a lame duck and will be eliminated in most of our lifetimes. One way or another.
To the person above who suggested trying to extend tenure to the non-tenured, that train left the station a long time ago. Recall, the tenureds welcomed the process of adjunctification so they wouldn't have to teach all those boring intro and service classes. Now, they're seeing the fruits of what they let happen.
I'm in favor of ending tenure and replacing it with renewable contracts. My reasons are purely self-interested. As an adjunct with a Ph.D., my chances of landing a full-time job rise exponentially based on a non-tenure system of renewable contracts. As it stands now, my chances of landing a tenure track job are nill.
The bottom line here is that just because everyone who is denied cries "bias" does not mean that we do not indeed have a substantial problem in academic tenure decisions.
And it's incredibly hard to prove you weren't thinking something, no matter how far from your mind it actually was.
Right. And you are no doubt harkening back to Chad's last embarrassment where he was arguing that people who espouse anti-homosexual ideologies are perfectly able to keep this "far from their minds" when evaluating the tenure case of their gay colleague. hogwash. what is demonstrably "hard" is for people to admit that they are in fact biased evaluators, just like everyone else. The only way to maintain "objectivity" is indeed some degree of transparency, proceduralism and ultimately the competition of biases. Relying on the "objectivity" of flawed humans is to express an unbelievable ignorance of everything we know about human decision making...
Check it out.
But why dismiss the academic freedom objection? A friend and colleague with whom I disagree almost all the time (he's a conservative libertarian) would have been fired for insubordination years ago if the tenure system wasn't in place and he hadn't already earned it. With it, it took a PR battle to overcome opposition from the campus president to his becoming a full professor, but he got what he deserved in the end.
Rather than pursue this question in any detail, it is enough to say that despite the problems in characterizing the notion exactly, we have a good enough idea of what it means for present purposes. That academics should not be subject to institutional discipline or censure for the expression of opinion, in otherwise responsible research, teaching, or elsewhere, is close enough to what is true.
That said, is it all plausible that academic freedom might be as well protected under a system of renewable contracts-- even ones with language protecting academic freedom written into them-- as it is now, under the tenure system? Can we even take this suggestion seriously?
Frankly, it is so obvious that the proposed alternative would weaken protections of academic freedom that I find it tiresome to have to argue so. Nevertheless, here are two important facts, if there really are competent adults who have not thought of these before:
-- performance evaluations can mask contract-violating reasons for non-renewal of a contract. For example, mediocre course evaluations might be a stated cause to replace a professor with one more likely to please the students, when, in fact, an institution is embarrassed by the public statements of that professor, and aims to eliminate the professor for that reason.
-- Unusual, marginal, or other non-mainstream views might wrongly, but sincerely, be judged as substandard performance in contract renewals. For example, a Keynesian in a department of neoclassical economists might be judged to do incompetent research or teaching, as opposed to intellectually responsible but divergent work.
Anyone familiar with tenure struggles-- either the ordinary, anonymous kind or the more nationally notorious-- knows that both of the above things happen often enough as it is. They could reliably be expected to multiply in number and egregiousness under Dean Dad's proposed alternative. I want to add, "obviously".
Indeed, the broader point is so obvious that once stated out loud it's difficult to see what there is to argue about. If an administration has significantly reduced power to dismiss faculty for any reason, it will a fortiori have reduced power to dismiss faculty for reasons having to do with the content of their research, public statements, or teaching. This stunningly plain truth is precisely the point of the present tenure system.
I could rehearse some recent, notable cases-- Finkelstein at De Paul, or Churchill at Colorado-- to give a taste of what would lie in store for academe on a larger scale if tenure were replaced with renewable contracts. It just seems so much belaboring to do so, however.
Now, someone might argue, as some previous posters have done, that academic freedom is not worth protecting as much as it is now protected by the tenure system. I don't agree, and I'm quite comfortable that the costs are worth the benefits. Still, if this is the view being offered, then it needs to presented that way, in the open. Let's not waste any more time arguing that the present tenure system actually protects academic freedom no better than a system of renewable contracts would do.
In fact, it is hard for me to believe someone as savvy as Dean Dad could say so. I wonder whether his frustration with the system from his present professional standpoint is getting in the way of his better judgment...