Friday, March 5, 2010

The Bishop of Tenure

Most Bishops promise that if you behave yourself you'll be handed everlasting bliss. But Amy Bishop didn't seem to agree. She had what appears to have been a mediocre record, at best, but a far from mediocre ego and temper. The synod that judged her work decided that it did not merit passage to academic haven (tenure--a lifetime chair in their department) so she sent them to heaven--by shooting them dead in their chairs.

This highlights one of the issues in American academic life that has many aspects, ethical, practical, and cultural, and that also affects science itself. Tenure is awarded if you have done important work, and enough of it (and often if you also hustled a lot of money to support it, and the overhead charges of your institution) that your peers within your department, and externally in the profession, judge you to be a Major Player. Even at the University of Alabama/Huntsville which, no matter its strengths, isn't a nationally top school.

The tenure system leads to all sorts of gaming of the system, as people very naturally try to build a case that they should not (ever) lose their jobs. Some people think nobody should have a lifetime job (unless you own the company?). Others defend the system because it truthfully protects freedom of speech in universities, where intimidation of ideas should not happen (but clearly would without a tenure system). And many like the system because we're beneficiaries. It's definitely a privileged position to be in. Unfortunately, in our security hungry class it becomes treated as something like a civil right, identical to one's ego and sense of self-worth, and so on.

It isn't however, something to kill for!

The Bishop murders (well, we weren't witnesses, so we are reporting what we've seen in the papers) show many aspects of our polarized, tightly wound-up society. They show the nature of academic bureaucratic structures. And they show a lot of pretense and loss of mission, too.

Universities used to be thought of as 'schools'. The strange notion was that we were here to teach students so they could be equipped to go out in the world and be successful. Instead, much of what happens at universities neglects the main students (the undergraduates) and instead is structured increasingly by the faculty to serve the faculty.

The point of the age-old publish-or-perish ethos used to be not score-counting, but that faculty members do enough work of good enough quality to show that they were keeping up to date in their field, so that they could be capable teachers. It was not a pretentious self-congratulatory game. Of course there were always those top-level faculty who published well and often, but that was the exception, not the ritualized necessity.

It isn't however, something to kill for!

Besides the stress on the junior faculty member, the system leads to the kind of gaming by which people split up papers into many rather than fewer, worry about the 'impact factor' of the journals they publish in, do whatever kind of work is fundable and publishable rapidly. This is part and parcel of our too-often incremental 'safe' kind of research. Problems that take a long time to address well are not on the plate. Most of us know this, though not all would acknowledge it (we've posted on this subject before).

Stress over tenure decisions spoils a good bit of university life. We have to have standards and, just like a baseball team, not every one who aspires to a position can have one (much less a lifetime one). But good training of students (not just 'our' own students who man the grant projects in our own labs), and our best effort at understanding the truth of our respective fields of work, not paper-counts or grant budgets, should be the marks of success.

Now the Alabama murders make one raise questions about the tenure system, and they're legitimate questions. But this can mistakenly be interpreted that the reason for such examination is that the system is badly flawed. That somehow Bishop's mayhem was understandable, or even excusable. A cause for self-examination where the questioning finger is pointed at ourselves.

It isn't however, something to kill for!

From the stories we see, Dr Bishop snapped under the pressure. There is no excuse or sympathy for that. She's certainly not the kind of Bishop the Church of Knowledge can tolerate. Her peers were doing their job, and that job involves human judgment. That means to some extent it is frail, fallible, and perhaps even sociopolitical. But that's no secret. The system cannot be allowed to be intimidated by those who snap. Even if it leads us to reflect that perhaps we should return the academic altar of knowledge to some saner semblance of balance.


John R. Vokey said...

On the day you published this blog, I was in a tenure hearing as an adjudicator regarding another young woman who was awarded tenure without issue. Why we do this to each other in the way we do (i.e., everything coming down to one meeting of a small group of tenured professors) really does need examination, especially as tenure rarely has the exalted meaning it once had in most jurisdictions.

I do not understand why we put people through this byzantine process, except that it was the process we went through (the ``seven miles of broken glass'' argument). No professor is without yearly (if not more often) evaluation these days, so if you have had 5 years of ``satisfactory'' (or better) evaluations, why is the conclusion of the hearing not perfunctory? Indeed, why the hearing at all given that progression?

I suspect it is because we all secretly hold that the yearly evaluations do more to avoid confronting correctible issues of the candidate than provide true evaluations, on the assumption that the Draconian tenure hearing will correct for the egregious lack of appropriate monitoring and supervision leading up top it. The effect is, with a few exceptions (as in the blog), that the most important selection and decision we make is at the hiring stage (where, ironically, we have the least information), and not at the point of tenure.

Ken Weiss said...

I'd agree and even perhaps go further. I don't think this draconian system has made any university's program better than in the 'old days' except perhaps in somewhat damping the 'old boy' network system. We can still find ways to hire who we want, when we have some target of opportunity, and those who want to avoid hiring minorities can find ways to do it.

The documenting system provides lots of lawyer-meat, and bureaucratizing and legalizing has made things less collegial and more costly.

If hiring is done well, and an institution's reputation is good, it will get good applicants. If we give people clear statements of criteria for tenure, and do some procedure to have at least somewhat objective evaluation at tenure time (so it is not just too subjective and open to intimidation by Chairs etc.), things will be as good as these kinds of imperfect things can ever be.

Or, one could think of going to a rolling tenure system, where evaluations renew a contract every so many years. (to keep people from becoming actual 'dead wood')

There are a lot of problems in the way we do things now. And every 'system' has its problems. But when the system is burdensome, painful, costly, time-wasting, and rather arrogant, and yet doesn't really have a better 'yield', it's not doing anybody any good.