Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Collegial cruelty

Like many of my readers, I spent the weekend consumed by grief and rage. The mass murder in Newtown was the main reason, but not the only one--and since I have nothing unique or useful to say about Newtown, I'll talk about the one that better falls within the purview of this blog: the pointless and mean-spirited hazing that so many institutions and individuals seem to think is a necessary part of the tenure review process.

Once upon a time, I assumed that most tenure denials happened either at top-tier schools like my alma mater, which almost never tenure their junior faculty (why have an associate professor when you can hire two new assistant professors or poach a senior luminary?) or when a faculty member really did fall short of whatever her institution's tenure standards might be.

And some of the tenure denials I know about do fall into those two categories, though even those events are grimmer than I used to assume. It's not clear to me, for example, that some of the junior faculty my graduate department has tenured in recent years have been stronger scholars than those they haven't, and some of those denied tenure probably have reason to feel wronged or misled. Similarly, it had never occurred to me how traumatizing or divisive it could be for an entire department to have to vote down a beloved colleague who--for one reason or another--just didn't clear the bar.

But to my surprise and sorrow, a lot of the cases I've encountered in the past seven years don't fall into those more-or-less expected categories. I now know many people who have been treated abominably by their institutions, either getting denied tenure for dubious or obviously unjust reasons--or, if they have been awarded tenure, getting it only after being subjected to unwarranted and emotionally brutalizing treatment leading up to an eventual, hair's-breadth approval of their case.

None of the cases occurred at RU and none of the stories are really mine to tell, so I'll speak mostly in generalities--but I just don't get what an individual or a department or an institution gains by either losing good people or by hazing them to such a degree that they fear and hate their colleagues.

Often, it seems like just one or two people are behind it: sometimes it's a dean, but often it's some random asshole on a key department or college-wide committee who unilaterally decides that, for example, one of the candidate's publications isn't in a good enough journal--so he'd better have at least two more articles under contract by January! Or they'll declare that a book based on the dissertation doesn't count as new work. Or that two positive outside reviews and the editor's promise to bring the project to the board next month doesn't count: there has to be a formal, counter-signed contract. Or that one semester of bad student evaluations counts more than 10 strong ones.

Sometimes this hazing leaves a candidate with nothing to do but panic for months on end, fretting about the outcome. At other times, it involves seemingly impossible last-minute demands (get another article accepted for publication by next month! Make sure your evals this semester are the best they've ever been!). Either way, it's destructive.

I don't understand what motivates people to be such assholes to their colleagues, especially on the very point of tenuring them: do you really want to alienate those you're about to guarantee life employment? Is your only sense of power derived from passing judgment on other people and declaring them unworthy? Or are you so very unhappy that you need to frighten and humiliate your colleagues when they're most vulnerable?

Seriously, readers: if you've heard the kinds of stories I've heard, what's your explanation? Because the things some of my friends have gone and are going through just make me sick.


moria said...

And then there's this.

What the obvious politics of the trend illustrated in that article demonstrate, I think, is that this stuff has to be systemic – not the outrageous acts of occasional sabotage-oriented individuals. How to name, understand, or analyze, let alone change that systemic failure, however, is way the fuck above my paygrade.

Flavia said...


Yes, I am unfortunately quite familiar with that case.

You're right, of course, that there tend to be patterns at work: the vast majority of the people I know who have run into (unjustified) tenure trouble are women and/or minorities of some description--though I could name a couple of straight white men working on very canonical/non-controversial material who have been put through the wringer for no good reason, too.

Nevertheless, I'm still interested in what the individual actors think they're doing, and why others let them do it.

Anonymous said...

So: I write as someone who was denied tenure at a SLAC for not being a good enough teacher, on trumped up and problematic evidence. What I discovered is that there is an amazing network of people who have had that experience and survived, even thrived. People were incredibly generous and kind to me when this happened.

In trying to analyze *why* people can be such jerks, I think there are several things in play:
1. professional insecurity (1) Envy. I was hired by my SLAC when it was going through a transition from a teaching focus to a research focus, and there where a whole bunch of people who'd been there many many years and published no books. I had not only published a book, but also an article in an international journal of great prestige. It made my colleagues feel good to say that I didn't measure up on teaching.

2. Professional insecurity (2)gatekeeping: I watched a case a few years ago at my current R1, when a group of men decided that a woman's work was not sufficiently theoretical, and wasn't really literary scholarship because it was literary history more than analysis. They also announced that for tenure, you needed a book and 6 articles. These are guys who publish lots of short things, so they created standards that made them stars. And yes, there are gender issues. The person got tenure, but previously good working relationships were damaged, and these guys continue to think that we lowered standards for her tenure.

3. Gender. Need I say more? Women are still expected to meet the men's standards, whatever they are -- quantity, writing style, etc. (I.e. if you don't talk incessantly about Derrida or Foucault or whoever you aren't doing anything theoretical.)

4. Personal insecurity. It has probably not escaped the notice of most of the readers of this blog that most academics did not score high on the social graces scale. We are not taught how to evaluate people, so we do it badly; and we try to prove all sorts of stupid things by the tenure review process.

There's probably more, but those are mine. They can all be boiled down to insecurity leading to false arrogance.

scr said...

So many of these things feel like they must be part of the artificial construct that is the tenure system.

It seems interesting that existing professors, who stand to lose nothing by admitting another tenured faculty to the 'club', still behave in a way that you might expect an imaginary head of the institution to act (eg, "we're already getting this individual's productivity, what good does it do us to grant tenure?").

As a matter of hiring, of course, they want more staff to join the ranks, help shoulder the workload, but somehow feel that they lose in status by admitting one more member to the exclusive club.

Maybe it is the very "job for life" status that makes these people defensive about their own status; the fact that they're not continually asked to prove their worth means that they can feel insecure -- either because they have slacked off, or because they know they COULD have slacked off and still find themselves employed, so their continued employment says nothing about their continued value to their institution.

All I know is that the tech industry is probably one of the most meritocratic job markets in the country, and I've never seen any conspiracy or malicious desire to keep certain people (or kinds of people!) out. But again, that could be down to the difference between employment and tenure, or a result of other factors (perhaps a more collaborative work environment, or the knowledge that you likely won't work with that person for more than a few years, or.. any number of other factors).

EngLitProf said...

I am irked when I hear of senior faculty using the tenure process to re-think the hiring decision: they act as though they are being asked if this is the person they would hire as a new associate professor in an open search.

Flavia said...


All the people I know who have been denied tenure (unless it's just happened and they're still figuring out their course of action) have found a lot of support, too--and the majority have gone on to better jobs, or prize-winning books, or otherwise more satisfying lives. I don't want to suggest that tenure denial is the worst thing ever. But it makes me angry when so often the reasons are, as you say, trumped up. And when it causes such stress and pain.

I really like your suggestion that it's about devising standards that make the gatekeepers look good by comparison. Some of the cases I know about involve this kind of goalpost-moving, too: "Oh, yeah: a book was our standard... but you got a contract, with a really good press? Huh. Well, since we've already decided that your work isn't worthwhile, from you we need [some ridiculous additional thing that no other successful candidate for tenure has had to produce]. Because: STANDARDS!"

Comrade Physioprof said...

I have seen substantively justifiable tenure denials where the candidate was appropriately told, "You need to alter your research program in the following way", but told way too late to implement. So the denial was correct, but the circumstances were unfair and the result of shitty mentoring along the way.

Lucky Jane said...

I was just having this conversation with a colleague (the colleague who chaired my p&t committee, actually). We agreed that tenure denials are such a waste. Moreover, unless you're at INRU, where you take the job with the understanding that it's going to be an extraordinarily prestigious, stressful postdoc, denying tenure amounts to announcing how incompetent your department and institution are at recruitment and mentoring. Indeed, I've decided never to vote to deny anyone tenure. Many of those I know who've been denied tenure have proven the adage about success or living well being the best revenge, but in unguarded moments (or even guarded ones) they remain haunted by the experience many years later. One wonders what directions their careers might have taken had they not had to take time to recover and to start over elsewhere. So even when they do bounce back, what a waste.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I agree with the people who say it's about insecurity, and about making the gatekeepers look good. I mean, the higher the standards, the more difficult it is to get tenure, the more amazing *they* must be, right??

I'm not saying there are no justifiable tenure denials - but really, in a humane and reasonable world, no one would go into a tenure review without knowing well in advance what the outcome was going to be (barring something truly unforeseeable, I suppose). Hell, in a humane and reasonable world, no one would get turned down for tenure, because it if was going to happen, the person would find out and leave before that point (though admittedly not everyone wants to take the message or finds somewhere else to go).

Honestly, most of my ambivalence/hostility to tenure is that I feel the process is so prone to abuse and so emotionally harmful. I know the majority of people get tenure and probably sail through without harm. But it seems to me a ridiculous and unnecessary system. (Don't get me started!)

Admittedly, I'm not exactly impartial about all this.

Flavia said...

CPP, Jane & New Kid:

Yes, exactly. If people are hired well and mentored well, the only tenure denials should be pretty straightforward ones. As I suggested in my post, eve that's not potentially without sadness and some harm to the department (the candidate may have been widely-liked; the department may lose the line), but at least everyone's seen that train coming down the track.

I'm happy to report that the tenure process at RU is very straightforward and humane, with well-articulated expectations and plenty of mentoring (all 10 of the people who have gone up for tenure in the past seven years have sailed through, and the next two look to be locks, as well); most of the people I know elsewhere have had good or at least not-bad experiences. But there's a significant minority who get royally screwed for reasons that really do seem to boil down to incompetence, insecurity, and/or assholery.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

The situations you and your readers describe are foreign to my experience. Perhaps state schools are different from SLACs. All the arts/sciences departments (I am not privy to engineering, etc) have clear guidelines for tenure, and do regular pre-tenure reviews, so it is clear when people go up what the outcome is likely to be.

At LRU, we do hope to tenure those we hire. Sometimes it is not possible. In cases I know of, from a variety of departments, there have been instances of putting all eggs in the book-basket, and then not getting a publisher for the MS; of failing to complete an unfinished dissertation when hired ABD; of failing to place a suitable number of articles (encyclopedia entries will not cut it, and the guidelines say so); and of refusing to teach the students we have rather than those the teacher wanted. I think in all those cases, the institution was entirely justified in denying tenure. We have a book, and we play by it.

I am also certain that the people denied tenure have a very different narrative, involving their colleagues' insecurity, failure to appreciate their brilliance, lack of support, and so on. It is hard to support someone who is anxious to the point of paranoia and reacts suspiciously to invitations or advice, or who brushes these away with condescension (because we are so benighted as to have spent our careers at a third-tier state school in flyover country).

Having seen some of the cases you describe from the other side, it sounds a bit different from here. The signed book contract is what we call the "drop-dead clause": if the author dropped dead tomorrow, would the book still appear? Is it truly finished? We want a book, not a manuscript that drags on for another five years. "Two articles by next month" can be similar: articles need to be in print, or at least in press, to count, so if you have something in the pipeline, and it appears in print before the date at which we have to take this to the next level of administration, we'll be able to count them.

What I don't see in my colleagues is cruelty and vindictiveness. We understand that people's careers are at stake. So is our university. We do not want to be stuck for life with someone who treats students poorly, can't finish and submit MSS in a timely manner, or just doesn't pull his/her weight.

Flavia said...

Dame Eleanor,

As I mentioned in my last comment, my experience at my state institution is much like yours at yours: our tenure standards are clearly articulated from the beginning, there are several interim review stages where interventions can (and do!) happen to make sure that junior faculty will be on track for tenure, and so there really are no surprises when Year Six rolls around.

And of course you're right that the narratives of denied faculty may (indeed, very likely do) differ from those of the people doing the denying. However, I'm quite sure that the cases I and my commenters are talking about are not subject to your more benign reinterpretations.

The examples I gave in my post are meant to show shifted or surprise, last-minute expectations. I know of cases where a book contract was the expressed standard, but suddenly someone insists that the book has to be in print (and if it isn't, the applicant had sure better scramble to get some additional articles accepted). Or where a book--period--was the standard, and suddenly someone starts quibbling about the press (some institutions do have a list of acceptable presses from the get-go, but I mean at a place where there never had been such a thing).

And sometimes it's about conflict between the department and the college. I know of more than one case at more than one institution where the department unanimously approved someone's application only to have the case torpedoed by someone on the college-wide committee for specious reasons (or, to put it more neutrally, for reasons that boil down to disciplinary differences), like the one about the dissertation-derived book. In the humanities, a book, in and of itself, represents significant work beyond the dissertation. But in some disciplines, publishing a book based on the dissertation reads as "no work beyond the dissertation."

I'm sure these cases are a minority. But they aren't rare enough.

phd me said...

Collegiality is the most overlooked quality in academia. I, too, do not understand how faculty get away with being absolute asshats to their colleagues. I often joke about the complete lack of social skills to be found in any department but it isn't a laughing matter when you have colleagues who scream at each other in the hallway, undermine each other on committees and use graduate students to jockey for postion (all true).

Have you ever noticed, though, that the colleagues who seem to be the worst offenders typically aren't the brightest stars? They don't lack self-confidence, of course, but they don't measure up to the standards by which they hold other, more vulnerable, colleagues. So, other commenters seem to have it right: insecurity breeds incivility.

Did any of these people go to kindergarten?

Doctor Cleveland said...

Like most of us, I can't disclose any of the horror stories I know. But I find they're mostly from places where the process is more holistic, or where people feel free to deviate the established procedures. This is one of the many realms where a more bureaucratic procedure, with clear standards expressed up front and a pre-arranged set of hoops to jump through, is better than a "less bureaucratic" because more arbitrary procedure. A contract spelling out the various ridiculous hoops beats still-more-ridiculous hoops randomly thrown up at the last minute.

People suddenly getting the vapor about "standards!" and talking about some standard they just made up right now, rather than the standard that their colleague has been working six years to meet, is where the problem is. As is the sudden brainstorm that the candidate should have to submit something *else* that s/he has not previously been required to submit. The more rule-driven processes are less open to abuse.

Academics should not be encouraged to make from-the-gut value judgments at the last minute. Nobody should. But some academics do have the habit of speaking in the subjunctive rather than the indicative mood, and making the conversation about what the standard ought to be (in their opinion), rather than what the agreed-upon standard is.

Susan said...

I am lucky enough to work in an institution with relatively clear standards (though we are new, so we're still working out what they mean in practice). More importantly, we have a very transparent process, so if the review committee's report has something nutso in it, the candidate can respond. Ditto, if people say crazy things in the department meeting, candidates see the report and can respond. It doesn't stop people occasionally acting foolish, but it really does put a brake on the worst of it. This makes it very labor intensive: as chair I meet with every candidate during a review (pre-tenure or promotion) three times to make sure they know their rights, that they understand what was said, etc.

I think many of the ways the process goes wrong have to do with trying to find shortcuts for judgments of quality. So the whole "university press" thing is a shortcut: as one colleague noted,in some fields, the leading press is a scholarly trade press, and if you're in a peripheral field, you take the press you can get.

As Dame Eleanor suggested, with clear standards, and a good pre-tenure review, there should be no problems. And I think public institutions tend to be less inclined to sloppy thinking on this: one of the virtues of bureaucracy is at least that.

Dr. Virago said...

The shittiness and vindictiveness and terrible mentoring and bait-and-switch tactics can still happen at public institutions with transparent, multi-year pre-tenure review processes. I've seen it happen with my own eyes (I was on the personnel committee) and it was very obviously personal and vindictive and idiotic. Luckily, there were people on the committee fighting the stupidity (myself included, IMHO), and the person up for tenure eventually got it, but only after an ugly-ass fight in a small department, where zie has to now work with the very person who was so clearly out to get hir. Don't want to say more than that.

So even *with* clear standards and pre-tenure review (which, btw, the candidate passed in all previous years!), bullshit happens.

Dr. Virago said...

(I should add that this wasn't *my* department, thank god. This was a multi-disciplinary personnel committee.)

Anonymous said...

I feel the same about this as I do about conversations about graduate student mentoring (and the things that go wrong). There's all this variation--what was a perfectly wonderful process for one person could be a nightmare for someone in the same department and yet, the bottom line is the same. People get absolutely screwed over with some regularity and they tend to be women and minorities. After we note that, we all protest that our departments are different and go back to ignoring the armies of adjuncts who make our work possible.

Flavia said...

Anon 1:09: so is your complaint that I (my readers, the academy) aren't really doing anything--just wringing our hands about the inequities in the tenure process? Because it actually sounds to me as though some of my commenters (the first Anon and Dr. V and Lucky Jane, most explicitly, but others of us by implication) are indeed doing something to try to prevent inequities at our institutions.

Or is your complaint that no injustices are as unjust as those faced by adjuncts, so we actually shouldn't try to fix anything else?

Anonymous said...

One of the main issues has to do with "fitting in". That can become such a thorny situation. Yes, academia weants excellence but often departments and universities are mediocre themselves, and the assistant professor just has to deal with it. The department has standards when they themselves are part of a system that does not live up to those standards really. You have an excellent scholar and a good teacher but that person does not really "fit in" the department and the professors resent that. The person can then say "why did you hire me if you wanted something else?". That's the tricky aspect of academia, in my opinion, "fitting in".