Saturday, February 26, 2011

To Reform Tenure, Consider Breaking Confidentiality: A Novel Approach

Following our discovery that Brown University is proposing to extend the tenure clock for probationary faculty to eight years, we learn that the University of Michigan is considering a similar move.  The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) is, according to the Michigan Daily,  considering extending the maximum probationary period.  Currently it is eight years, and SACUA is proposing an optional ten year clock.  Additional items on the table included weighting the decision more heavily towards faculty evaluations of the candidate.

In a proposal that appears, on the face of it, to be driven by concerns in the sciences and at the medical school, Professor of Statistics Ed Rothman told the Daily that:

this is only a short-term solution to a larger, long-term problem — ill-defined standards for obtaining tenure. Rothman said externally generated standards, like publishing requirements for faculty members, diminish quality of work. He said tenure should be determined by internally generated standards like peer reviews of faculty members’ performances.

“Long-term, I think what we need to do is come up with a standard that we have control over,” Rothman said.

He added that since faculty members have no control over fluctuations in the economy, tenure shouldn’t be determined by economically-driven factors such as obtaining research grants or publishing materials.

One similarity with Brown's approach to tenure reform seems to be recognizing the effect of the economy on the traditional markers that signal professional achievement.  Racking up numbers -- grants, books and articles -- are virtually the only indication untenured faculty have that they are making material progress towards a positive tenure vote.  We urge them to think this way, in part because publishing demonstrates a broader recognition that this person's work is significant to others outside our own little world.

One problem with this, however, is that numbers only provide the frame for a decision, whereas probationary faculty tend to think it is the whole ball of wax. In tenure decisions, no one talks about numbers for more than a second or two.  It is what people think of the quality of the work that is crucial.  Very often other things matter too:  did this person write a prize-winning book, but do so at the expense of showing up for class irregularly and unprepared?  Ideally, a tenure decision not only grants a guaranteed seat at the scholarly table for past achievement, but also recognizes that there will be future promise that justifies that person's employment over three decades or so.  In other words, in any field, tenure is an opportunity, not a reward.  It grants access to important and increasingly scarce resources:  a positive tenure vote is a vote of confidence that this person is going to use this opportunity well over the course of a career.

In this sense, an extended clock recognizes that not all people can demonstrate their promise adequately in the same time frame, and that life circumstances can intervene to prevent that. In this sense, the Michigan and Brown reforms should be applauded.  But I wonder if giving departmental faculty more power over tenure is, in the absence of other reforms, a truly benign development.  Depending on the dynamic of the individual department, it does not necessarily mean that those with the best knowledge in the candidates field of study will actually have the most influence over the decision.  In fact, it is not unknown for faculty who are hostile to particular fields and specialties within the department, or who associate certain methods and subject matters with political positions to which they are hostile, will acquire more influence than they have already without any guarantee that the decision will be more fair.

What seems to me to be a a genuinely useful direction for tenure reform -- one that would make these other reforms more meaningful -- would be to dismantle the sacred cow of confidentiality.  It is an ancient belief that secrecy in these procedures makes honest evaluations more likely, but we know that this is not true.  Mean people write mean letters about good people; generous people write "do no harm" letters about mediocre scholarship that allows a department to tenure for its own reasons and not have to overcome a bad letter in the process.  Myself, I never write a tenure letter that expresses criticisms in a tone I could not imagine the candidate reading, and I never say anything in a meeting that I don't imagine the candidate hearing.  Indeed, even in the case of a positive decision, leaks in the meeting develop almost immediately, metastasizing into gossip about who voted in which way and why.

So, why are tenure procedures confidential?  To protect the university from legal action, that's why.  A secondary concern is that the faculty making the decision would prefer to have some control over their own images, prefer not to be known for taking negative stances on a case even if they believe they have voted correctly, and are fully capable of re-crafting their own positions following a negative decision to distance themselves from the damage.  Doing someone dirty in a confidential atmosphere, even if what you are saying is true and supported by evidence, permits faculty to control the process in a way that may do structural damage to the community in the long run.

Therefore, in my view, any real tenure reform has to address the problem of high-stakes evaluations that are done in private.  Secrecy actually permits institutional inequality to thrive, because no one ever "sees" it; alternatively, it allows a larger, skeptical public to believe that a negative tenure decision might be an outcome of prejudice when in fact it has resulted from an honest evaluation of the case.  Breaking confidentiality not only forces people to explain why they believe what they believe, it also creates a far more textured picture than probationary faculty currently have of why some people are tenured and some people are not.All of these things are bad for faculty morale over the long term, and they are bad for how a larger public views the tenure system. 
  • Making all materials in a tenure case available to the candidate. 
  • Allowing the candidate to respond to questions about hir scholarship that have arisen in the letters and in the departmental discussion.
  • Making minority and majority opinions on each case available in some kind of public document.
  • Allowing all departmental faculty who have voted in the case to identify themselves to the candidate and explain why they voted the way they did.
Breaking confidentiality would have a generative role in positive tenure cases too, since positive decisions are sometimes weighted down with the baggage of negative votes that have been successfully overcome.  These negative votes not infrequently arise from critiques that, although they were not sustained by the majority decision, should not be allowed to disappear either.  Candidates inevitably hear rumors about them, but are justified in not taking them seriously because they are conveyed (often inaccurately) by their "friends" and have been articulated by "enemies." Flaws in scholarship that are not fatal at the level of the monograph might have serious ramifications down the road if they are not addressed, while originality and risk-taking that has been deliberately muted in pre-tenure scholarship so as not to offend could be usefully cultivated in the post-tenure years.

Will there be a "Wikitenure" scandal down the road?  My guess is yes.  But let's think about the possibility of breaking confidentiality in a more positive light.  What could openness in tenure decisions, that made them more like evaluations done in non-scholarly fields, do to improve the process?  How could it educate young scholars better to what we expect of them, and how they will be asked to function as senior members of the faculty?  How might those who perceive personnel cases as part of an ongoing, factional struggle within departments be marginalized in favor of those who want to see departments grow in a healthy way? Could that intervene in decades-long grudge matches that create a toxicity for the newly tenured to manage?

And might it make probationary faculty feel, even when they are disappointed in a decision, that they had an opportunity to be heard in the process of deciding their own futures?


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Ideally, a tenure decision not only grants a guaranteed seat at the scholarly table for past achievement, but also recognizes that there will be future promise that justifies that person's employment over three decades or so.

At my institution, the explicit standards for promotion and tenure are couched in forward-looking terms, asking about the candidate's likelihood for particular levels of future accomplishment. I agree that this is a good thing.

In relation to confidentiality, independent of the substantive merits you mention, there is the major issue of administrative overhead. Implementation of your proposal would require the creation of a fucketonne of additional documentation, and that documentation would also have to be reviewed, edited, etc. This would be a *major* administrative undertaking, and would require a lot of faculty and administrator time and effort, and thus money.

With time and money a zero-sum game at universities, I doubt that this would be a good use of resources.

madradprof said...

The University of Minnesota has an open letter policy and the candidate is allowed to read and respond to majority and minority reports. It's been this way for years so don't think legal liability is a stumbling block to greater openness. Letter writers are informed that the candidate will have access to the letters. Some people refuse to write tenure review letters because of this policy. Some of my colleagues think that the open letter policy causes reviewers to pull their punches, so letters that offer faint praise but no sharp criticism are subject to much debate.

Susan said...

At the University of California, candidates have access to redacted copies of letters -- i.e. with identifying information removed. Writers are instructed to put any identifying information below the signature.

Candidates receive a copy of the case analysis -- the presentation of the case -- before the meeting. They can add material or respond to issues at that time.

We also provide an oral summary and a redacted copy of the transmittal memo, which summarizes the discussion in the department meeting. Candidates can again respond to issues or provide additional evidence; there may be a revised vote after that.

None of this stops people from saying outrageous things in tenure cases. And, as CPP notes, it also requires tons of staff support.

Ruth said...

At a previous institution where I taught, anyone who voted in a tenure or promotion case had to put in writing (accessible to the candidate) which of the candidate's publications and other material s/he had read. The idea was to shame people into reading the work before voting. I am not sure whether it worked.

I now teach at an open files institution like what madradprof describes. It is true that some referees refuse to write for this reason. And it is true that departments and committees tend to look carefully for "damning with faint praise": but I found this also to be the case at a non-open-files institution, as indeed it is with graduate admissions and a lot of other things where letters are confidential.

Katrina said...

I'm interested in your idea of removing the confidentiality of tenure letters. Would you suggest the same for letters of rec. for jobs? I'm sure we all know horror stories of letters that slam a candidate, and which the candidate is blindly sending off with job applications. This is a particularly cruel trick, pulled by the passive aggressive (to agree to write a letter of recommendation, then write something bad, knowing the subject won't get to see it). I realise tenure letters are different, in that they are solicited by the department, but I wonder if you would apply the same argument?

Margi said...

The CSU system has an open process. The candidate sees and can write a response to all the letters produced along the way: by the tenure committee, chair, dean. I agree that this leads some to "pull their punches." In fact, at the moment, while I have serious doubts about someone coming up for tenure in my department, I foresee his getting it anyway and find myself anticipating a difficult relationship with him should I make my doubts public. I haven't decided yet whether to write a letter that I'm pretty sure I would write if the process were confidential. That said, I think this transparent process is preferable to the alternative for the reasons you state.

Historiann said...

I'd like to stand up for raw numbers. Uncharacteristically! I have found that a substantial number of publications frequently correlates with the *quality* of a candidate's work, too. (That is, I think it's too easy to dismiss the evaluation of scholarship as an evaluation of quantity versus quality, or the reverse.)

The reason some people publish a lot is that they are 1) hardworking and 2) smart, ergo they have opportunities to publish that those of us who are not nearly as hardworking or as smart do not. (And yes, I'm putting myself in the latter category. I hold my own, but I'm no star. Not yet, anyway!)

While I certainly see the value of publishing a *big* article instead of 3 or 4 less prominently placed articles or book chapters, I also think the folks who have more work circulating get the benefit of exercizing their brains and writing skills and getting feedback on their work that the lone genius polishing a solitary gem does not.

As for transparency in tenure cases: bring it. Absolutely. The reason some departments may prefer that outside reviewers' letters be completely confidential is that they're unwilling to do the work of judging quality themselves. They want an outside bigshot to give a candid opinion because it saves them the labor of reading articles and books outside of their fields.

Tenured Radical said...

I agree with Historiann about numbers about 90% of the way. I used to be a highly institution/teaching focused person who squeezed out a book on time, and an article now and then to. Following my unhappy promotion to full, I did a 180 degree turn, have shed as much institutional work as possible, and am writing/publishing like a banshee. Result? The more I write, the better my work gets.

Interestingly, I think I am also teaching better -- and enjoying it more -- than I have in years.

So yes: numbers do indicate something healthy going on that ought to be encouraged. It's when assistant profs keep asking the "How much???" question, as if getting tenure were some version of passing a standardized test, that I realize the message they are getting is gnarly.

What I don't understand is why transparency would be so expensive and labor intensive. If candidates simply had all the paperwork in the case available to them, all you would have to do is copy it. In our dept. we never name names anyway. Who said what is less important than whether substantive praise/critiques emerge that shape the contours of the case. It is always "The majority believed...." or "Some felt, however,...."

I have also thought that having a senior person from *another* dept observe the proceedings and report on them would be worthwhile. Some departments don't even know how peculiar their practices are because they have been doing them in private for so long.

Anonymous said...

"It is an ancient belief that secrecy in these procedures makes honest evaluations more likely, but we know that this is not true."

Wow, who's this "we"? I totally disagree. I write about one letter a year, and would be both less willing to write letters if candidates were to see them all (I don't mind that once in a blue moon a legal process may disclose the letters), and less likely to include frank criticism.

When I write book reviews I try to make criticism tell people "don't adopt this theory" but not "this person should not be tenured." But some people should not be tenured.

And with totally public letters, it would be harder for many people to write frank criticism of the students of Big Angry Famous Grant-controlling Guy, or Big Journal Editor Guy, who can counter by hurting my students. The world of scholarship would include even more feuds and back-scratching than it does now.

Maybe my viewpoint is skewed by the departments I've been in, but in a good department the senior faculty should be good enough to refute or contextualize negative comments in letters. My departments have done this even in far-flung subfields.

Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned letters of recommendation. I just read a rec. for Admission to graduate school that said the person's main interests were "bourbon and the ____ (the home town NFL team)". Why did that person agree to write?

Northern Barbarian said...

A looming problem with numbers of publications is the big economic squeeze. Grant funds from federal sources, university press budgets, library budgets for purchasing monographs. . . not news, but I am struck by how academics are determined to ignore the implications for publishing as long as possible. The day is coming soon when a good young scholar simply cannot get that book out, and tenure standards will have to change as a result.

In theory I like the idea of an open tenure process, but it depends on the culture of the department and the college. My SLAC tends toward secrecy and paranoia, and many people here would refuse to write an open tenure letter, no matter how honest, because un-named shadowy forces might take revenge.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 8:44 -- That person has been reading too much Comrade PhysioProf, and doesn't understand that predilections for bourbon and football should only be revealed after tenure.

No seriously, either that person is a $hit who is deliberately tanking the candidate or has some weird idea that the most vile old boys' rules still apply.

8:42 -- I understand what you are saying, that is a real concern, and yes, some people shouldn't be tenured. Almost no-one is likely to come out and say no one should be tenured, however: what they usually do is write a letter that says some version of: "meh." Which translates as, "I think I will punt on this one," and allows the letter to operate as a departmental Rorschach test.

But the dynamic you describe also confirms one of the *worst* possible views of the tenure process, which is that it isn't about the work at all -- it's about who you know and how much suck your mentors have.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

Just a quick point of clarification about the UMich situation. SACUA were responding to a proposal by the Provost to extend the tenure clock to 10 years for everyone across the board. The SACUA proposal, as I understand it, wanted to provide a little more nuance and flexibility.

Quick question. How did you go about shedding your institutional work? I would love to do this, but it doesn't seem feasible.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me? Or does anyone else here think that 10 years of being "probationary" is simply too long? After 10 years at an institution, if tenure is denied, moving and starting over again elsewhere would be so much more difficult than after just a couple of years.

Not to mention that having to bite one's tongue for fear of offending one's tenured colleagues for an entire decade, seems a bit crazy.

Tenured Radical said...

I would have driven a pencil through my ear if I had had to wait that long. But I think folks at Yale and Harvard, and possibly other places, do. And yes, it is merely a casual observation that the long tenure clock weighs heavily on your average Joe or Jane Scholar.

Anonymous said...

In our current bleak job market, particularly in the humanities, how are now lengthened tenure clock proposals impacted by the glut of recent PhDs many of whom are spending quite a few years adjuncting or postdocing, often publishing a book and quite a few articles during that period? In other words, what are we to make of tenure standards and time frames that assume year 1 = year 1 post-PhD? Are those years before a tt-position lost years and is that scholarship effectively "lost" in terms of tenure?

Anonymous said...

it seems like pushing the clock out that far is asking an awful lot of junior faculty. grad school already takes seven years, and then there's a year or two of post doc or job hunting, and now we're going to extend the tenure clock out to ten years? we're asking people to spend most of their lives in limbo, so they can end up with a job that earns five figures. the only people who would take that deal are masochists and idiots.

Katrina said...

The previous two (anonymous) commenters raise good points (2.22 and 2.46).
What about the work published before the clock officially starts? Rather than pushing out the end point of tenure, could the start point essentially be shifted back, so work produced before arrival would count? (I know some people manage to negotiate for it, but some places are reluctant to give credit for years spent not on the t-t, such as postdocs or adjuncting).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I have heard from people at institutions with long tenure clocks--eight to ten years--that this extended time frame actually made them feel more relaxed about getting their research programs going, and that it gave them the courage to take bigger risks at the very beginning than they would have felt comfortable taking had they known that in five or six years it was going to be up or out.

Susan said...

Tenure is usually a career review, so it does include work done prior to taking a post. And in most places, you can come up early.

Tenured Radical said...

Right on both points Susan: a second clarification is that at Michigan, the extension of the tenure clock is optional.

Upon reflection, and this does not void my earlier critique, voluntary tenure clock extensions might play the useful function of de-pathologizing what now are "normal" extensions of the clock. Childbirth stops the clock, but in reality extends it, and that time is sometimes not used for actual childcare. Conversely, parental leave policies do not address the actual 2-3 years that it can take for some children to become autonomous enough to require less direct care by a parent. Others don't sleep on a normal cycle for 18-24 months. We all know, for example, that men who don't take parental leave are viewed as heroic in their capacity to overcome the birth of a child; and that men who do are perceived as uncommonly deserving -- and often, by women, as scammers whose wives are taking care of the kid while they write. Women taking parental leave are simply viewed by many men as malingerers.

Similarly, people who need to stop the clock to care for an aging parent or their own disease may have their lives disrupted for far longer than the time permitted, even though they can return to work (who adjusts to medication for bipolar disorder in a year? to becoming mobility impaired or blind? to a parent afflicted with Alzheimers who may live for years?)

Having a two-year optional extension has the advantages CPP describes, but it also means that the reasons for extending the clock are not subject to special scrutiny, ever.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Having a two-year optional extension has the advantages CPP describes, but it also means that the reasons for extending the clock are not subject to special scrutiny, ever.

Making the clock vary from person to person creates a different problem, which is whether and how accomplishments are calibrated to the time frame of the individual under review. Should people who take ten years be held to a higher standard of accomplishment than people who take seven years? Is that fair if one person takes ten years to do more research, while another person takes ten years because they needs time to attend to family responsibilities?

Tenured Radical said...

That would be the argument for setting the clock at ten, with the option to come up early if the standard is met early. That's how we do it at Zenith on a 7 year clock, after years of wrangling about whether an early case had to meet a *higher* bar.

Anonymous said...

Just a brief reply regarding numbers. In some fields, and in sub-fields of History, English, etc. the pace of scholarship is by nature slower, and the venues are few and far between. One simply cannot expect, for example, an ancient historian to publish similar numbers as a modern historian. But, the problem comes when modernists impose their own notions of productivity on sub-fields that don't allow that pace. So, please keep in mind at field and sub-field differences really do matter here!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your blog. I quick note about the picture you chose for this post, however. It looks like someone teaching legal research--overwhelmingly women, overwhelmingly non tenure-track positions. Political issue and as former legal research & writing "instructor" recruited from a top ten law school and paid half a tenure track salary I had to comment.

Other side of the pond said...

One simply cannot expect, for example, an ancient historian to publish similar numbers as a modern historian.

Interesting. I often hear this argument from colleagues in different sub-fields, and I am never quite sure why. Does it relate to sources? And if so, surely some modernists face similar issues (language, access to archives, oral history projects etc.)? One medievalist colleague seems to be convinced that all modernists' sources are on the internet - which sadly is not the case!

Genuinely interested to know more about this.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear other: No, it relates to publishing opportunities -- most university presses are unsubsidized, or have some kind of mandate to cover their costs in lean times. I've never worried about getting a book in modern US out, for example, and there seems to be at least a decent market for all kinds of US projects in all periods: as yet thinly conceived projects can generate great enthusiasm, whereas I am told that people in other fields -- and sometimes the time period is an indicator of smaller or more specialized audiences -- can have a rougher time.

Dr. Cynicism said...

I wish I had something sage to contribute to this good discussion, but instead I'm still laughing over that wonderful cartoon.

Jennifer said...

Like TR, I think an open file policy is a great idea. It forces scholars to be accountable for their evaluations and decisions. My institution has an open files policy for tenure decsions. We can see all external letters, the department report, and write a response if we like. Of course, the "department report" does not specify who said what in the meeting, but if you know your colleagues well, it's not too hard to discern which one made the nasty comments about feminist scholarship and queer theory.

I know many faculty and administrators argue that an open file policy will deter letter writers from writing a scathing critique. However, I know of many cases in several different departments at my university where letter writers did write very critical letters for tenure and promotion cases. So, I don't find the argument that open files automatically produce good reviews convincing.

Plus, academics comment upon one another's work all the time in conferences which are highly visible and public. I don't know what norms are like in other disciplines, but meetings I have attended in sociology, SSHA, and American studies, commentators range from being generous and glowing to damning with faint praise to strong criticism.

Fabian Smith said...

I really enjoy reding your posts as I learn a lot from them. I also broaden my thinking as far as what I can use and do with things

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