Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Slightly Scary Tenure Stories

Halloween candy, decorations, and costumes are already all over the stores (at least the ones that the glamorous GMP frequents -- grocery stores, Target, Walmart). I don't mind the pumpkinpalooza at all: while I am a person with no holiday spirit whatsoever, I love Halloween. It is my favorite holiday as I get to dress up, give away (and eat!) candy, and occasionally scare little kids.

Speaking of scary things, there are few things scarier to a newly independent academic than the tenure case evaluation. The prospect of a tenure case gone wrong for some perverse and unforeseen reason has been known to wake an assistant professor up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. Or lead to bouts of good, old freaking out. Being nervous (panicked even!) as you are approaching tenure is totally OK; being testy is OK too, just don't call your department chair an asshole or anything else that's hard to take back. And remove sharp objects from your office. And switch to decaf.

Tenure evaluation is on many a science blogger's mind. Prodigal Academic recently wondered if she should go up for promotion early, given she'd had a very good first year on tenure track. Namnezia is going up for tenure and wondering what types of institutions the external evaluation letters will be solicited from. FSP wrote from the standpoint of a senior faculy who often writes letters of evaluation.

I am a relatively recent survivor of the tenure evaluation process, so here is my contribution to the confusion and panic among TT faculty (mwahahahahaaha!) in the form of two true stories that scared the bejeezus out of me in my 4th and 5th year.

Scary story 1:

At my institution, people are strongly discouraged from going up for tenure early, and if you want to go up early you have to be significantly better (after the shorter time) than an average person after 6 years. This actually came up in a bizzare case of a woman who was going up in her 6th year (regular time) but had 2 children during her tenure track and actually had tenure stoppage paperwork in her file (a year for each child). The thing with tenure stoppage is that you can use it if you need to, but you don't actually have to use it if you don't need it. This woman clearly did well enough that she didn't feel she needed the extra years. However, there was a smart-ass on the university level promotion committee who said: well, her tenure clock has been stopped, so she has really been on tenure track for 4 years, so she's in fact going up early now; therefore, she must therefore be much better than an average 6th year candidate! Can you belive that?! Instead of saying "Good job, two kids didn't slow you down at all!" this person said "Aha, the kids didn't slow you down, so instead of evaluating you as a normal 6th-year candidate, we will evaluate you according to even harsher criteria reserved only for Trailblazing Superstars." How's that for a reward?
Luckily, there were several reasonable people on the committee who eventually stopped the idiocy from hurting the candidate's case.

Scary story 2:

My institution is very conservative in the letter writer selection business. The candidate must not supply any information on the desired letter writers (he/she is allowed to give one or two names of whom not to ask, if animosity is involved); the list of letter writers is entirely compiled by a few designated colleagues from the department, and the letter writers should all be members of NAS/NAE, award winners, endowed chairs at very prominent institutions, and so on. Also, the letter writers are not supposed to be asked first if they are available to write or not before the formal requests are sent. Simply, a list of names is compiled, requests for letters are sent out, and then you wait. The departmet will send for many letters, 10-12, as the goal is to have at least 8 come back.

I have seen cases where this selection of letter writers without any input from the candidate results in letter writers poorly chosen (too far from the candidate's area) and too many lukewarm letters ("I've never heard of the guy"), which totally hurts the case. I have also seen one single letter sink the case at the university committee level, where people may not be from your area at all and rely heavily on what Big Wig (even if an ass) says about your work. As an example, I know of a faculty, who brought in a ton of money and had a cover GlamourMag publication, and who was denied tenure because a poor selection of the letter writers resulted in one dismissive and several lukewarm letters. He went up again in his seventh year (by which time he had raised even more money and received some awards) with a completely new dossier and a new set of letters (whose writers were now chosen much more carefully), and he sailed smoothly to tenure.

In my experience, the letter part was extremely scary because it felt completely out of my control, and I knew the university-level committee would put an extraordinary weight on them. On the upside, I do believe that most letter writers really do try to give an honest and objective account of the tenure case at hand. People on the tenure track should definitely do the "tenure tour" near the end of their tenure track appointment: travel as much as possible, meet as many people who have the potential to evaluate you if you haven't already done so, showcase your work in any venue that it may be appropriate for, even if not your favorite conferences. And all the extra invited talks at conferences and seminars at universities look good on the CV. I killed myself traveling in my 5th year, it was grueling but I think it was totally worth it.


Alex said...

In half-defense of the person who wanted to apply year 4 criteria: I work at a very, very bureaucratic place, complete with a faculty union. If somebody came before the University committee with "4 years on the clock" stamped on the paperwork, and they didn't use early tenure criteria, somebody else who came up with "4 years on the clock" stamped on the paperwork could probably file a grievance. When you ask a rigid bureaucracy to stop the clock and disregard 2 years, that's what they do.

Is it reasonable? No. Should tenure committees have a certain amount of flexibility? Yes (with the "Be careful what you wish for" proviso). Should we be shocked if a bureaucracy is consistent to the point of absurdity? No.

All that said, I don't know your school, so maybe the rules are a bit more flexible. I do get the impression that the tenure process at a research universities (public or private) have slightly more flexible processes than primarily undergraduate state schools with unions. "Research quality" is a bit more amorphous and field-dependent than the checklist* at a primarily-undergraduate state school with a union, so maybe you can and should expect better behavior from your tenure committees.

*The checklist is:
A. Regular tenure
1) Were teaching evaluations consistently awful?
2) Did they do something that the department is willing to call research?
3) Did they manage to not strangle anybody in a committee meeting?

If the answers are No, Yes, and "Pretty much, except that one time", you get tenure on the regular schedule.

B. Early tenure
1) Did the professor get absolutely perfect evaluations AND do a course re-design that resulted in universal praise and a pedagogical publication?
2) Was the research quantity what you'd see at a research university?
3) Did the professor walk on water in service and kiss all the right asses and generally do so much work that nobody else had to?

The answers had better be Yes, Yes, and Yes. Otherwise, no early tenure.

Neo said...

Academic world has become so bureaucratic and so much of politics. :(

SCARY indeed.

Seems corporate world has much more freedom.... :)


namnezia said...

Thanks GMP, now I feel much better...

prodigal academic said...

Yikes! Thanks a lot, GMP--this is just what I need to read right now, when I already feel like I am drowning! You should put a stronger warning on it to keep the already paranoid TTs away. :-)

Girlpostdoc said...

At Canadian universities, it is very rare to find someone who is denied tenure. All the evaluation and intense interviewing is done when the person is hired. Plus there is a big big difference in funding here than in Canada. There isn't the boom-bust cycle of funding that happens here. The average grant might be much smaller but the rate of getting one is much higher (77% Canada vs. 7-10% here). The labs are small but sustainable. Personally if a job comes up in Canada, that would be my first preference. This system here seems untenable.

Gerty-Z said...


Why are you toying with the poor Asst. Prof like that?


GMP said...

Prodigal, Namnezia, Gerty-Z:
Roast slowly on the flames of pre-tenure anxiety, oh young ones! It warms my icy heart! *sinister laughter*

I know these two stories (and some other ones) kept me in the state of constant panic near the end of my TT. I thought some completely unforeseen extraterrestrial shit was going to destroy my case... I was seriously bitchy to my colleagues right before tenure (which I see only in retrospect), sort of like a very very VERY bad PMS. And I am not the kindest of the lot to begin with.

In reality, my tenure evaluation was so uneventful that I ended up totally underwhelmed when it was all over (after having lived in a pre-cardiac-arrest state for months). They tell me the letters were all glowing and the votes unanimous at every level. Overall, the evaluation was even more anticlimactic than my PhD defense, which I had thought would never be surpassed in its anticlimactic-ness.

Still, I think it took a good 6 months for my blood pressure to drop back to normal.

But these stories -- and I am sure you will hear similar ones from your institutions -- never come with full information about what really went on... No doubt, for instilling maximal fear in the hearts of Assistant Profs! :-)

Alex, you totally cracked me up! 1) Were teaching evaluations consistently awful? 2) Did they do something that the department is willing to call research? 3) Did they manage to not strangle anybody in a committee meeting?

If the answers are No, Yes, and "Pretty much, except that one time", you get tenure on the regular schedule.


Neo: Seems corporate world has much more freedom.... :)

Touche! End of whining.

Girlpostdoc, I have heard similar accounts of the work in Canada from several places. It would certainly be nice to escape the grant acquisition rat race, at least for a little bit...

Massimo said...

What are the tenure stats at your institution ? What fraction of those who went up over the past ten years have gotten it ? Ask around, if no one can/will give you an answer you may assume it is embarrassingly close to 100%.

Anonymous said...

My department's is 100%. Why should that be embarrassing? Doesn't it suggest that the department is doing a good job of evaluating potential hires and letting them know how they're progressing?

Massimo said...

Sure, that is exactly the circular argument that many administrators will give you. They were picked because they are excellent, and they are excellent because they would not have been picked otherwise.
But then why have the process in the first place ? It is expensive, time-consuming, wears people down, worries them sick, and for what ? If the department does such a heck of a job at picking excellent candidates in the first place, why do they need the tenure track ? Just to weed out the very few who slipped through the cracks ? Nah, I don't buy it.
I think that ridiculously high tenuring rates can also be indicative of a) lack of interest for the department on the part of the administration, and b) desire to chug along on a path of comfortable mediocrity on the part of faculty.

Melodye said...

I was curious about this example -- "He went up again in his seventh year (by which time he had raised even more money and received some awards) with a completely new dossier and a new set of letters (whose writers were now chosen much more carefully), and he sailed smoothly to tenure."

How does that work? Is it commonly the case that you can go up for tenure more than once at the same institution? At least at the institution I went to school at (and worked at), if you were denied tenure, you had to find new work within the next year.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's circular. They were picked because they looked like good candidates, then the department kept them up to speed on how they were progressing and what they needed to do to be successful.

I'm not under the impression that the rate is going to continue to be 100% indefinitely. At some point someone along the way will screw up; that's just the law of averages. So I'm working hard, and actually comments like yours (which I've heard elsewhere too) make me nervous that someone (like, for instance, me) could be denied tenure just to show that they're willing to do it.

GMP said...

Melodye, the guy who was denied in his 6th year was indeed supposed to leave after year 7 (you are guaranteed one full academic year after tenure denial to get your affairs in order and leave). However, during his 7th year (which was supposed to be his last), his department was able to appeal and successfully argue that his original dossier and letters did not do him justice (I don't know the details, but it was essentially a form of department-backed appeal) so his new dossier was reconsidered.

Massimo said...

They were picked because they looked like good candidates, then the department kept them up to speed on how they were progressing and what they needed to do to be successful.

Sure, but that is not always enough. There are plenty of promising young actors, football players, corporate managers, singers etc. who do not live up to expectations, regardless of being told all the time what they should be doing.
In fact, the attrition rate in academia is actually quite high, as most tenure-track candidates leave their jobs while on the tenure stream.
The reasons are many, of course, and this fact in and of itself need not mean that most of those who opt out would not have gotten tenure. Still, it does point to the fact that departments and search committee get it wrong sometimes, after all -- I don't think 50% of the time as suggested by the above study, but still enough that one would expect a higher rejection rate than what is observed on average.
My personal opinion, based on my 13-yr experience, is because denying tenure is such a distasteful, unpleasant and damaging thing to do (not just to the candidate but to the department as well -- no one likes doing it), often times it is not done even when it would be painfully necessary.