Friday, March 28, 2008

Transparency and Reciprocity

Tim Burke and Chad Orzel have recently posted some helpful thoughts on tenure and its assumptions. This paragraph of Chad's is so good that I'm jealous that I didn't write it:

[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.)

That's bad enough in low-stakes decisions. In a tenure case, where the decision boils down to “job for life” or “fired,” it's that much worse.

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.)

Am I arguing for preserving the sacrosanct secrecy of the star chamber, the hermetic seal on the door of the smoke-filled room?


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?