Thursday, November 12, 2009


Speed Tenuring

Although speed dating came along late enough that I missed it, I'll admit being fascinated by it as an intellectual exercise. How much can you actually determine about someone in five minutes?

Apparently, the President of the University of Toledo thinks he can judge the tenure-worthiness of a candidate in thirty minutes.

His comments in the IHE article don't inspire confidence. Among other things, he mentions that he examines "body language, facial features, [and] voice tone." Facial features? Really? It isn't a huge leap to imagine adding "skin color" to the list. (It also isn't a huge leap to imagine the lawyer for a denied candidate referring to the decision as "arbitrary and capricious.") I'd be surprised if a candidate for tenure, knowing that she has thirty minutes to either get job security for life or fired, weren't a bit nervous. It's worse than a normal job interview, since it's presumably the only job for which you're applying at the time. Look a little strained, sound a little nervous, and you're fired. Nice.

Given all that, though, I can see how the President talked himself into this. It's an admittedly hamhanded, but understandable, response to several absurd conditions.

First, there's the obvious absurdity of the forever-or-fired moment of the tenure system. No matter how you make the decision, or what criteria you use, it's forever. It's easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision. That makes the stakes higher than in speed dating.

Second, there's the extraordinary institutional cost of a lifetime commitment. Give someone tenure at 35, and she may well stick around, on the payroll, for another 40 years. That's a hell of a commitment to make to someone on the basis of a few memos. I can understand the urge to take a long, last look before approving that. That's especially true if you have doubts about the process or the people who generated the memos.

Third, there's the fact that the President is the one to take the fall if a tenured professor goes around the bend. The committee that recommended Ward Churchill got off scot-free. Don't think we admins don't know that. If we're on the hook, then making our own judgments is simply self-preservation. This urge can be especially powerful if the faculty making the recommendations routinely recommend everybody. I'd be much more inclined to trust the judgment of people who actually make distinctions than I would to trust the judgment of people who always say yes. If the latter holds locally, then some sort of reality check is obviously in order. Someone has to be the bad guy, and if nobody below the President steps up, then I could understand the urge to fill the vacuum.

Finally, there's the ambiguous definition of the word 'recommend.' Typical English language usage suggests that recommendations are not binding. But depending on local culture and the legal climate, overturning a recommendation may become a prima facie cause of action. I'd argue that you can't have it both ways. Either a recommendation is merely that, which allows room for the decision-maker to go either way, or it's binding, at which point it's the actual decision. Higher ed instead often defaults to a wink-wink nudge-nudge recommendation that is widely understood to be binding. There's a fundamental dishonesty to that, and it paints people into corners. When cornered, some people respond impulsively. In this case, the President is defaulting to the normal English language usage of the word 'recommendation,' and relying on his gut for the final decision. I think he's getting it badly wrong, but I can see how he got there.

My recommendation, using the word correctly, would be to make a fundamental choice and live with the consequences. Either live with the tenure system or go to something else. If you go to something else, like my preferred renewable-contract system, then you lower the cost of a bad decision and make it much easier to accept committee recommendations at face value. Or, you could decide to live with the tenure system but clean up the understandings of process, responsibilities, and criteria. Raise the bar to reduce the risk of false positives. Then restrict yourself to policing the process for irregularities. You should do that anyway, since irregularities are lawsuit bait, but stay out of second-guessing the merits. This is the default option for most of higher ed, and institutionally, it makes short-term sense. Over time, gradually replace retiring tenured professors with adjuncts, then keep raising the tenure bar for the few tenure-track positions that remain. It's a war of attrition, rather than a frontal assault, and you can do it without owning up to it. Better, you can paint yourself the champion of high standards and Excellence while you do it. For those keeping score at home, this is what most midtier schools in America have been doing for about the last forty years. How's that working out?

What you don't do, though, is make lifetime commitments based on facial features and a thirty-minute chat. The stakes on both sides are just too high.

I'm not sure that what Jacobs (the Toledo president) wants to do is unreasonable, and while the quote you highlight does look bad, reading the whole article I think its hyperbole to say that "[he] things he can judge the tenure-worthiness of a candidate in thirty minutes." Rather, he just thinks he can learn something, perhaps something that got downplayed by the committees that produced the tenure dossier. Or that his interview will amplify something in memo; perhaps there's some indications in the memo that the faculty member has a bad attitude towards students. If, at the interview, they come across as rude and arrogant, that, combined with certain comments from students might raise the red flag.

Also, suppose instead the stakes were lower, say this was just a job interview for a tenure-track position. I've known deans who insist on meeting every job candidate, and I've been at the receiving end of such interviews with deans and (once) the provost. I didn't think it was an unreasonable thing at all, though obviously it's expensive in terms of their time. If it's reasonable to have the dean/provost/president interview job candidates, I'm not sure why it's unreasonable to have them interview tenure candidates. After all, as you say the stakes are even higher in the later case...
The provost plays this role at my school. The president is primarily a fund raiser.
Well, my response to this is if what you want to do is put a name to a face, maybe you should do it BEFORE they come up for tenure. If the role isn't delegated to the provost, (which would certainly be reasonable) you could easily create opportunities to get to know candidates before you make the recommendation. I've been interviewed by the Dean of the Faculty; and I think a good president will try to get to know as many faculty as possible. I know that when you have 500 faculty, it's hard, but it's not impossible. And it doesn't always have to be a formal interview.
At our college, the President attends one of your classes during your tenure earning years. That is (a) longer than 30 minutes and (b) better than an interview since that is what we are being hired to do.

That's a hell of a commitment to make to someone on the basis of a few memos.

At most universities, the binder that is underneath the memo is several inches thick and includes the spreadsheet showing contracts and grants data that matters more than anything.

the President is the one to take the fall if a tenured professor goes around the bend. The committee that recommended Ward Churchill got off scot-free.

If the President (and Provost and Dean) who signed off on Ward Churchill are all still at that university, it would be an unusual situation. Most faculty at an R1 will see a multitude of Presidents during their tenure.
Organizational psychologists have conducted thousands of studies over decades about effective job selection procedures. The kind of informal interview suggested by the U of Toledo president is an utterly useless predictor of job performance. To put it bluntly, what he wants to do is a waste of his time and the tenure probationer's time. He may as well flip a coin to make his decision.

It astounds me how many administrators insist on these types of informal job interviews and assume they can "glean" some kind of valid information from facial expressions and tone of voice. This is a sad indicator of the paucity of evidence-based decision making among top-level managers in academic organizations.
Milo and Dean Dad are absolutely right about the poor predictive value of unstructured interviews. Our business students all learn this (or rather, are given the opportunity to learn this) in their Principles of Management course.
Based on Ward Churchill's wiki bio and info at the University of Colorado:

He was probably hired by Gordon Gee, started work under interim President William Baughn in the fall of 1990, was granted tenure by either Baughn or Judith Albino (who started in April 1991), and served under her and 3 other presidents (plus one more interim president). He was promoted to full Professor by the second of these, John Buechner. His third President resigned amid the controversy in 2005 and he was fired by the fourth one in 2007.

The regular presidents each lasted about 3 to 5 years in office. The one who took the most grief had nothing to do with hiring or promoting him.
The U. Toledo President's interview practice is poorly thought-out. He's going to judge people for tenure based upon a 30-minute interview? Dumb, dumb, dumb. There are better ways he can spend his time, without risking judgements influenced by inappropriate and discriminatory aspects of the individual under consideration. Every tenure case comes with a huge thick folder of deep scholarly work, of careful evaluation of the candidate by his/her peers, teaching evaluations, etc. How about he focus on that, instead? If the President has too much time on his hands, he'd be better off spending those 30 minutes reading every letter from every letter-writer, or reading all the feedback from students who took the prof's classes, or almost anything else. An interview by a President is invariably going to lead to superficial judgements, at least for some tenure candidates. For instance, it is absurd and discriminatory to take "facial features" into account during a tenure decision. WTF?

If I was at the University of Toledo, I'd start interviewing at other schools who have a more reasonable tenure process.

DeanDad, you argue that the President has been painted into a corner and this absurd situation is an inevitable consequence of the tenure system. Nonsense. Somehow about a gazillion other institutions manage to conduct tenure review without a 30-minute interview with the President. Blaming this on the tenure process is silliness. This is just a case of bad judgement on the part of the President. Eliminating tenure won't eliminate bad judgement; it will just manifest in some other way.
A few memos?! Not at my institution, not in my field, and not likely anywhere in the Western Hemisphere in this century. Folks seeking tenure at my university submit literally thousands of pages of documents, and while the only thing that most faculty on the committees and most administrators along the way actually read are the documents that summarize all those materials, that's a heck of a lot different than saying it just takes a few memos.

Also, the idea that we ought to simply replace tenure-track faculty with adjuncts is just flat-out wrong. Unless the institution just doesn't care that much about who is teaching the classes. If a university or a CC wants its faculty to be "professional," to have the credentials of advanced degrees, to participate in the operation of the institution, to do all the other things we ask of faculty, then the institution needs to give those people something. For 95% of full-time faculty in this country, that "something" ain't money; it's tenure. If my university were to give me a 20% raise but take away my tenure, then maybe that would be worth it. Since they aren't going to do that, I'll take the job security.

Besides, lots of professions have something like tenure, for better or worse. The whole problem with the tragic situation at Fort Hood resulted in part because it's almost impossible to get someone drummed out of the military for incompetence. Professionals who work for medical practices or law firms or similar organizations are made "partners," and thus a part of the system that way. People who work for the government tend to enjoy a great deal of job security based more on seniority than anything else. And so forth. The higher almost any employed person rises up on the food chain the more difficult it is to fire that person, with or without cause.
Steve --

With all due respect, you missed the point.

I'm not at all advocating going all-adjunct. I'm saying that that's where we're going now, because tenure is unsustainable. My preferred alternative is renewable long-term contracts. Whether you buy my alternative or not, it's clearly different from going all-adjunct.

The reference to 'a few memos' was to indicate the amount of material a President will read. It's not realistic to expect a President to read every file for every candidate. Not gonna happen. But there's a 'black box' quality to those memos, so I could understand the impulse to look inside the box.

Finally, the assertion that going higher on the ladder brings more job security is simply false. The average length of service of a chief academic officer is three years. How long does the average tenured professor last?
I tried to post this response before but it didn't make it....

First off, I think that there is no real and practical difference in terms of the "institutional commitment" between tenure-track faculty and faculty/instructors who are working on long-term contracts. I've been a grad student or a faculty at four different colleges and universities at this stage, and each of those institutions had/has instructors who are not tenured and who have been at the institution for decades. And I can tell you that these long-timer instructors generally do enjoy an either spoken or unspoken commitment similar to tenure: that is, they aren't going to lose their jobs unless they do something horrible or unless there is a horrible financial crisis.

Conversely, I have seen in my experiences faculty being fired for doing horrible things, and, at one institution I was at, there were very real fears about tenured faculty being laid off because the funding was so dire.

So what I'm getting at is that just getting rid of tenure does not solve the "you can't fire these people" issue. It's hard to fire people, especially people who have seniority, unless they do something really bad. Long-term and renewable contracts do not solve that problem.

What long-term contracts do accomplish though is they strip the "academic free speech" and the role of faculty as being empowered to have a say in the running of an institution. And being disenfranchised in these ways might also allow institutions to pay these folks less. Of course this is something administrators favor.

Second, in terms of the "a few memos" comment; here's what you wrote:

"Second, there's the extraordinary institutional cost of a lifetime commitment. Give someone tenure at 35, and she may well stick around, on the payroll, for another 40 years. That's a hell of a commitment to make to someone on the basis of a few memos. I can understand the urge to take a long, last look before approving that. That's especially true if you have doubts about the process or the people who generated the memos."

I would agree that it would be unreasonable to assume the President at Toledo is going to read all the faculty files, but I read what you wrote as saying that the entire tenure process was simply based on a few memos. That's just flat out not the case. I would agree with you that it would be problematic if it were the case and I also think it is a problem for the UT President to presume he can make the case on a few memos, but I don't think you should imply that this is the basis of tenure in general terms.

Finally, as for Provosts/CAO and such lasting 3 or so years on average: I would submit that the main reasons this is true are a) these folks are always trying to climb the ladder to better and better jobs, and b) they tend to be older and nearer to retirement.

But when these folks fall, I don't think they necessarily fall that far. The last two presidents at my institution either had to resign or were fired out-right, and in both cases, both landed in not as good but still senior-level administrative positions. I can think of a dozen other deans and provosts with similar stories. Or, worst case scenario, they returned to their positions as tenured professors.
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