Tuesday, February 01, 2011

 

Meritocracy and Hiring

Is academic hiring meritocratic? The author of this piece assumes that it is. As someone whose job it is to actually hire faculty, I can attest that merit is only a small part of the picture.

The single most important part of the picture is the existence of a position at all. In this funding climate, we can only afford to staff a few of the positions (whether faculty, staff, or administration) that we need. If the position doesn’t exist, then the relative merit of the prospective candidates means exactly zero.

That may seem obvious, but it gets blithely ignored in the piece. Posted tenure-track faculty positions were down by double digits in most disciplines last year. Does that mean the merit of the candidate pool went down by double digits? Um, no.

In a particularly cruel catch-22, the relative ease of finding adjuncts for a given discipline actually mitigates against its getting a line. If you can only afford to hire one full-timer, and you have requests from both history and, say, pharmacy, what do you do? If good history adjuncts are easy to find, and good pharmacy adjuncts are nearly impossible, you give the line to pharmacy. An oversupply of candidates in a given discipline can actually depress demand for those candidates. (Say’s Law in reverse: supply actually depresses demand.) The connection to individual ‘merit’ is obscure at best.

For public institutions -- which employ a significant percentage of faculty in the US -- political winds at the state (and sometimes county) level also have serious impacts on hiring. For example, my college just got word that next year will bring yet another seven-figure cut in our operating funds. Obviously, any serious programmatic expansion is out of the question. This has literally nothing to do with the ‘merit’ of any given candidate. Depending on the state, the political winds may make the economic ones even worse. Combine a recession with a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights or a Prop 13, and all bets are off.

Of course, there’s also the basic incompatibility of life tenure with the idea of meritocracy. If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers, then you do not have a meritocracy. Tenure violates the foundational assumption of meritocracy. In truly performance-driven settings, there’s no such thing as resting on your laurels; you are either the best at your role right now or you are not, and you’d better be ready to prove yourself at any moment. If we had a meritocratic revolution, tenure would be the first casualty.

But even taking all of that as given, are the searches that actually happen reflections of pure merit?

They couldn’t be, because there is no such thing. Instead, there’s something like ‘fit,’ which only makes sense in context. Situational merit -- or what I above called “best at your role” -- necessarily relies on the situation (or role). As the situation changes, so does the merit.

Quick, who has more situational merit: a well-published candidate with an indifferent teaching style, or an engaging teacher who rarely publishes? A research university would answer that differently than a community college would. Unless you assume a single linear chain of being, like the old social Darwinists, you have to confront the diversity of missions of various institutions. ‘Merit’ in one setting does not necessarily imply merit in the other.

Alternately, who has more merit: a professor of French or a professor of Spanish? The latter has a much better shot at getting hired, because that’s where student demand is. You may be a fantastic French teacher, but if we don’t need it, we don’t need it. Enrollments aren’t the only drivers of hiring, but they matter. I don’t know how to judge the ‘merit’ of one language against another, but I know quite well how to measure the enrollments of one against another. In the absence of sustainable public subsidies, tuitions will pay the bills. C’est la vie.

Even within the same department or program, needs will vary over time. Sometimes a department needs a peacemaker and sometimes it needs a sparkplug. Sometimes it needs to diversify its demographics by race or gender. Sometimes it’s too inbred, with everybody coming from the same one or two graduate programs, and it needs new perspectives. Sometimes it just needs someone who isn’t allergic to the internet. None of those has anything to do with ‘merit’ in the sense the term is usually used, but each makes sense in its own way.

The key is to recognize that hiring is always more about the employer than about the employee. Employers hire to solve problems they consider important. If you’re the best darn German professor who ever walked the planet, congratulations, but I don’t need you. I don’t doubt your brilliance, your hard work, your civic virtue, or your habit of helping old ladies across the street. They just don’t matter. It’s not about you.

Conversely, if you landed in a great job, congratulations! Enjoy it, work hard, and do it without guilt. But it would be ethically unbecoming to assume that it reflects your personal superiority to those who didn’t make it. There’s such a thing as being in the right place at the right time.

My objection to the ‘meritocracy’ piece isn’t just that it’s inaccurate, although it is, or that it’s arrogant, although it is. My objection is that it feeds a myth that does real harm.

If you believe that the academic job market is a true meritocracy, and you’ve been freeway flying for a while now, what does that say about you?

I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it. It’s more than the money; other fields often pay more. Instead, they see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do.

My proposal: let’s recognize the academic job market as the uneven, unpredictable, often unforgiving thing that it is. Good people lose. Frankly, some real losers sometimes win. It’s not entirely random, of course, but it’s a far cry from a meritocracy. Let’s stop recruiting for a meat grinder of a market and pretending that it will all work out in the end. And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop pretending that it’s all about the candidates. It just isn’t.

Comments:
As you yourself note, the piece talks about academic *hiring* as meritocratic. The author believes (I think naively) that the good get jobs and go on to earn tenure and the best get really prestigious jobs in NYC where they make lots of money. (Ok, so I embellished a little on the last part, but that does seem to be his attitude.)

He's not talking about academic *workplaces* as internally meritocratic. He's talking about hiring into tenure-track positions primarily, and then he does imply that those with merit earn tenure. Presumably, tenure then authorizes the professor, and he/she no longer has to prove himself/herself. If the professor continues to produce, according to this author's model, presumably he/she would work his way up the academic food chain by being hired into ever more prestigious jobs. That paradigm says nothing about merit inside of a workplace once one gets into that tenure-line job.

But you leap to the following:

"Of course, there’s also the basic incompatibility of life tenure with the idea of meritocracy. If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers, then you do not have a meritocracy. Tenure violates the foundational assumption of meritocracy. In truly performance-driven settings, there’s no such thing as resting on your laurels; you are either the best at your role right now or you are not, and you’d better be ready to prove yourself at any moment. If we had a meritocratic revolution, tenure would be the first casualty."

Look, I know you don't believe in the tenure system. But this paragraph has nothing to do with the argument of the piece that you claim is the prompt for your post. The author says absolutely nothing about merit after tenure within one's home institution, and he doesn't compare those on the market or without tenure with those who have tenure. I know you want to use the piece to justify your own point of view, but it's not terribly convincing.
 
Of course, there’s also the basic incompatibility of life tenure with the idea of meritocracy. If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers, then you do not have a meritocracy.

Your ageism is showing. Do you put age before merit in hiring? And why overlook the degree to which tenure allows you to keep your best faculty without having to compete on salary?

And please don't pretend that you don't have any soon-to-be or recently-tenured newcomers who can't prove themselves against the old timers when it comes to passing rates -vs- learning rates. Or don't you measure learning when evaluating faculty?

But, hey, if life is so easy at your CC that 75-year-old faculty just cruise along like they were teaching a 15 student seminar every year at an R1, it must be the life of Riley if you are only 35.
 
I don't often get to respond during the day, what with the day job and all, but the storm of the century of the week has given me a chance.

I'm really disappointed in the misreadings by Dr. Cracy and CCPhysicist, both of whom are typically much more astute than that.

Read the original piece again. Note the example of Mike Piazza. There is no tenure in baseball. Separating 'hiring' from 'the workplace' is simply mystifying. To where are you hired, and why?

The entire point of my argument, which the first two commenters missed completely, is that merit does not inhere in the individual. It is contextual. You cannot be "certified" once and for all as "meritorious" -- the very idea is nonsensical.

Dr. C commits the surprising error of forgetting her Foucault. Writing 'merit' onto the body of the candidate is a technology of power.

CCPhysicist elides my argument completely, and instead resorts to a desperate libel. The desperation is revealing. Instead of false and defamatory ad hominems, how about actually engaging the argument?
 
You are absolutely correct. It is not a meritocracy. I've had my lowly assistant prof position for six years now and can think of eight or nine people in my graduating class who are "better" than me in several respects. It took three years or so for me just to get over the survivor's guilt.

Their fate? They will adjunct the large writing-intensive classes so that people like me can teach upper-level classes on Marxist interpretation of literature.

Note: I am on a small liberal arts campus without tenure. I assure you that the very same problem of "incumbents not having to prove themselves" exists here. In another department I have seen two bright, young, motivated faculty leave because of a presumed monopoly on the desirable upper-level classes. I will never forget one day when I volunteered to fill-in for one of these monopoly-holder's classes when he had to be absent. I protested initially at the prospect of lecturing, seeing as that it was in a different discipline altogether. I took perhaps one course in the area in question as a undergraduate. He then handed me his "lecture notes" - one single-spaced ditto sheet (yes, ditto on yellowing paper) which I was to read word-for-word to the class. it was a 1 1/2 hour class. "How does this last an entire session?" I asked. He responded "I read it really slowly and pause between each clause so that they can copy it down."
 
DD - I didn't forget my Foucault, and I actually agree with this:

"merit does not inhere in the individual. It is contextual. You cannot be "certified" once and for all as "meritorious" -- the very idea is nonsensical."

Sure. The PIECE is nonsensical. I don't think that this profession is a meritocracy. I don't think ANY profession is a pure meritocracy. I don't believe getting rid of tenure wouldn't change that. That's where we disagree and where I would contend that you either forget or misread your Foucault. You seem to believe that doing away with tenure would liberate us, that there is some outside of power.

You are right that separating hiring from the workplace is mystifying. But that's what the original article does - it participates in a mystification of what constitutes academic labor in order to reify the author's own subject position. I'm not supporting that mystification or that reification - just pointing out that those are the terms of the argument as it is presented.

At any rate, I didn't misread you, I criticized you for, in that one paragraph, not taking the article on its own terms. By not taking the article on its own terms, you don't, in my opinion, make a great case for your anti-tenure stance.
 
er, I don't believe getting rid of tenure WOULD change that.
 
I know that Tucker's point, particularly his Mike Piazza reference, is relevant to the sciences. We simply cannot assess who is going to be a productive scientist by looking at the academic credentials of young adults who have never independently conducted scientific research. We need to find those scientists by providing a large number of graduate students the opportunity to prove themselves. The system may be tough on the relative losers, myself included, but it works to the benefit of society and also ensures that our undergraduate students are taught by actual scientists.

As to tenure, it is a fact that, at least in the sciences, experienced teachers are not hired to faculty appointments. Almost all new faculty hires are of new faculty. I've seen qualified colleagues try to improve their situation by applying for appointments at better institutions, and I've never seen one succeed (the exception being someone who was visiting). Tenure may be useless, but, knowing how little mobility there is in the business, I understand why applicants place such a high premium on the tenure track.
 
Since tenure is required to retain good candidates -- in order to give them the hope of someday being protected from the whims of political power -- I'd drop the whole tenure thing.

I'll say it again; this anti-tenure thing has very little to do with your current thinking, DD, and it may be worth a revisit. Right now, the asides on tenure serve either as irrelevant distractions or as actual counters to your argument.
 
I generally concur that Tucker's piece is pretty naive about the "meritocratic" nature of academic hiring. But I'm going to pile on to your straw-man paragraph about tenure too...

Why assume that tenure precludes further "meritorious" conduct on the part of the tenured? Most institutions that don't have unionized faculty (that is, most U.S. institutions) offer merit raises for continuing excellent performance (indeed, for the last several years that's been the ONLY way to get a raise at my university). You must continue publishing and teaching well to earn full Professor. And the post-tenure review is not wholly without teeth here. In short, there are several incentives to keep tenured faculty productive.

Once again, I encourage DD to step outside his own geographical and institutional framework and really consider tenure from a national perspective...
 
My problem with D.D.'s position on tenure is that while it may make an administrator's life easier, it will in no way lead to an end of adjunctification. In fact, it will add gallons of red bull to the process. It won't lead to across-the-board 3-year or 5-year full time contracts. What it will do is turn everyone into adjuncts.

I suppose, to follow a far-too-neat dialectical logic here, the shear numbers of newly created adjuncts could create a large enough critical mass to lead to national unionization. Umm ... or not. As D.D. implies, the surplus of supply might disable that juggernaut.

And then there are the recent examples of both CUNY and Temple Univ. and how unionizing backfired in a stunning and painful way.
 
Well, I'm just going to say that the last two paragraphs of this post are spot-on. The myth of meritocracy in academic hiring is nothing to be sneezed at, particularly as a lure of promise to young PhD graduates (or individuals thinking of pursuing a PhD). It's a persuasive one that goes beyond the academic workplaces. In fact, I'd say it has the biggest impact on the academic job market itself, not on particular workplaces. That, I think, is the point: students are used to working hard, earning high grades and praise and getting a (tangible) reward from it. This is arguably true from K-12 through high school, undergrad and even parts of grad school. It abruptly becomes untrue the minute the bright students look for an academic job. The problem, of course, is that no one mentions this to the bright students on their path. There's only vague statistics of earnings and job placement after finishing a PhD and phrases like "there's always good jobs for good people" and the like. These have zero correlation with what happens in the actual job market.

Discussing what happens in the workplace after a hire is kind of irrelevant, but the promise of tenure as part of a job search is absolutely relevant. That's part of those vague promises: "good jobs for good people" is usually translated as tenure-track position at Dream Job U. No one suggests that a non-tenure job is desirable, and non-academic jobs sometimes don't get mentioned at all. Whether or not tenure should be removed/kept as part of the postsecondary system is a different issue to itself, but one strike against it is its false promise of the "true path" of a PhD holder.
 
An oversupply of candidates in a given discipline can actually depress demand for those candidates. (Say’s Law in reverse: supply actually depresses demand.)

That's a strange take on it. The two more obvious choices are competing goods and simple supply and demand.

If you treat adjunct labor and tenure track labor as filling the same institutional need, then a growing adjunct pool should naturally depress the price of labor and thus demand shifts to the cheaper good.

Alternatively, you can just say that labor is labor and tenure and adjunct simply two ways of compensating. In this model the oversupply of labor means winning candidates underbid competition by applying for adjunct positions rather than seeking only tenure track positions.

I'd say that the quantity of credit hours demanded is increasing slightly, as regional CC's have record enrollments. So you don't need to bend over backwards to explain the economic conditions.
 
Normally I'd object to DD's reflexive anti-tenure position, but I think you folks miss his argument. He is simply stating the undeniable fact that tenure makes academic employment--the question of who is employed this year, not just who gets a job this year--less meritocratic than it would be without tenure. Whether or not that was Tucker's thesis, it seems like a perfectly logical way to blog his piece.

That doesn't mean there aren't good reasons for tenure, like several commenters have noted. It doesn't mean that older faculty are less "productive" (whatever that means) or that we should ignore teaching. It just means that setting aside tenured faculty from merit-based competition makes the sytem less meritocratic. Even a generally pro-tenure person like me should be able to accept that.
 
Does anyone really think ending tenure would make hiring more meritocratic? If folks do, then they're as naive as the author of the article D.D. referenced. That said, I'm not really sure what tenure is anymore (in the humanities) except maybe a cookie for those who played ball, occupied the right "fit," published, and kissed the right ass, which are basically the criteria for hiring for tenure track, albeit phrased in the future tense.
 
Sometimes it’s too inbred, with everybody coming from the same one or two graduate programs, and it needs new perspectives. Sometimes it just needs someone who isn’t allergic to the internet.

How do you get departments (who control hiring decisions) to see this and want change? Is there a stealthy sneak attack way?

Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure.

Yes! And yet for many, making this leap is the economically prudent thing to do - I mean seriously - how long are you supposed to beat your head against the wall? If a job allows you to have the family and the life that you want, why would you fail to consider it (unless it comes with the inevitable taint of failure that accompanies any departure from the academy?) This is the most dysfunctional part of our school system - we take our best and brightest students and convince them that a life of wandering and voluntary poverty is their only option if they are to realize their gift.
 
@Ivory -- Excellent point, of course, but there's a problem you're not taking into consideration. After x years in grad. school, x + y years adjuncting and doing temp full time, when one approaches a non-academic HR department, they wear a large neon sign that reads "overqualified." And short of z more years back in school, plus figuring out some crafty lie to account for all those years in academe, well, you see the problem.
 
Does anyone really think ending tenure would make hiring more meritocratic?

It might, in the longer term. If tenure were eliminated in all but the highest tier institutions (Yale's going to do whatever the hell it wants anyway), I would say that many students would think twice about pursuing grad studies. Look at what's left: being an adjunct and making what you would when you were 17 with no job security, status or health benefits. If you're lucky, you'll get an office. The airy promises of a high paying, secure job living the "life of the mind" would be put to bed quickly. Bright people would have jobs requiring brightness.

In the short-run there is a significant chance this would cause chaos, of course.
 
The system may be tough on the relative losers, myself included, but it works to the benefit of society and also ensures that our undergraduate students are taught by actual scientists.

I strongly disagree with this on two fronts. First, "real scientists" from R1 schools (which in my state educate the majority of science majors) for the most part are terrible teachers. They frequently haven't the faintest idea what they are doing in the classroom and have (rightly) spent their careers doing science without spending time on their teaching skills. The small number that are good teachers are that way by chance and frequently are not the best researchers. Science faculty have so little time to practice teaching that you couldn't expect them to be good (My PI taught 5 weeks once a year at the institution where I got my grad degree as part of a team taught course).

Second, in the smaller classes and labs at R1 schools, TAs teach - not professors. So the idea that "real scientists" are passing on their skills to the next generation is false. My best teachers were lecturers - at both my undergrad and grad institution. I learned to be a scientist from my PI in grad school and our undergrad students in the lab doing projects learned to do science but that had nothing to do with what happened in the undergrad classroom. What having real scientists does do to an undergraduate institution is vastly increase the infrastructure costs of the campus – without increasing the quality or quantity of teaching there. Outside of an institution with a stated mission that emphasizes research, I really don’t see the point of it all.

Last, you are not a "loser" even in a relative sense if you have a science Ph.D and went into industry or some sort of non-academic job. The tidal wave of postdocs from China and India has depressed wages in academia so much that undergrads working at biotech companies as technicians make more than the average university postdoc. This is not to society's benefit - unless you want to use this as some sort of stealth brain drain/immigration policy. Also, institutions (Stanford comes to mind) that teach their Ph.D students about business end up better off financially that those that turn their noses up at relationships outside the academe. Silicon Valley is full of companies started by Stanford science Ph.Ds and while this might be because Stanford is Stanford, I think the fact that they make an effort to train their scientists to use their knowledge to do stuff (like start companies like Google) is hugely to their benefit and to ours as a community and society.
 
Rubashov - Thanks. I was beginning to wonder what people were actually reading...
 
And short of z more years back in school, plus figuring out some crafty lie to account for all those years in academe, well, you see the problem.

That's why I think students should be encouraged to have work while they are in school that could actually lead to employment afterwards. Barring that, I think having a school alumni association that connects grads to people outside the academe could go a long way towards helping.

It took my husband a year after grad school to find full time work in industry - he temped at three companies first and did work that was not "hands on science" but in the end, that opened more doors for him than a post doc would have and he got a job he really liked. Had he worked at a company for a couple of years before grad school, I think things would have gone faster for him and that's what I advised my undergrad students to do, even though it depressed the reported number of students we were sending to grad school. Our grads were better off with a combination of experience, education, and a nascent professional network than ploughing straight through academically. At my undergrad institution, this was explicitly advised against for those with a “true academic interest.” Stuff and nonsense.
 
I wasn't addressing your main argument, I was addressing your indefensible assumption that older faculty are lucky that they don't have to compete with younger ones for "choice" teaching assignments because they have tenure.

Since I've NEVER seen you question whether the newcomers have to prove themselves to be (immediately) as good as experienced faculty to keep their job more than one year -- and the possible impact it might have on educational quality if there is a massive turnover in your faculty -- there is nothing libelous in pointing out that fact. You were the one who stated that you don't hire on merit. I was asking one of several questions that follow from that statement.

And I don't see how getting rid of tenure would increase learning. I see plenty of evidence that it could lead to an increase in passing, not learning, if that is the only thing that can get easily measured on a yearly basis.
 
CCP,

Are you referring to previous posts from DD? I don't see that assumptipon made anywhere in this post. Whether or not "old-timers" are lucky has nothing to do with this. It's just a fact - tenure implies a lack of meritocracy. It makes no judgements on whether it should be that way. It does not preclude all the positive things that tenure brings to an academic institution. It's just how it is.
 
@pwnguin: Both you and DD are misreading the issue. Adjunct labor is a close substitute for tenure-track labor. An increase in the supply of adjunct labor would cause a decrease in the price of adjunct labor. This leads to a decrease in demand for tenure-track labor.

Say's Law is still really stupid; "Ishtar" is proof of that. But what DD is referring to is perfectly explainable using classical, much less neoclassical economics.

Also, tenure is still not the windmill I'd tilt at.

@DD: Do you believe that the non-tenured system at PU was inherently more meritocratic? That is, that it both selected for merit and then ended up with a more talented set of people? Recall that training and retention are a big part of Meritocracy...
 
Where? He wrote "If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers" but NEVER even considers that newcomers might have to prove themselves against the experienced faculty. This might reflect a particularly incompetent past hiring process in his area by previous Deans at his college, but it is a major error to extrapolate to all colleges everywhere.

He also ignores the role a Dean can play in assigning duties within the t-t faculty based on merit that might encourage the less competent faculty to retire earlier rather than later, if that is even necessary when you have a 5/5 load at a CC.
 
And add the two-body problem to the mix, and -- woe! -- for both sides of the equation.
 
Putting aside the reflexive anti-tenure comment, I agree with you, Dean Dad. Hiring in academia is as much by chance as merit, maybe more.

Certainly I can think of peers from my grad school years who languished as under-employed sessionals for year or moved out of academe altogether, through no fault of their own -- there just weren't jobs in their specialties available.

What's particularly galling about the myth of meritocracy, especially when it's put forward by faculty mentors, is that it instills false expectations in grad students that if they just excel, they will surely get, not just a job in academia, but the perfect job: great location, topflight school and a perfect fit all-around.

It's a crap-shoot and you're up against a tonne of competition. You may be wonderful but, hey, there might be another hundred wonderful and comparable candidates whose files are in the committees' hands! That is, if anyone's hiring at all.
 
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