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.