Saturday, February 19, 2005

More on that Moron Ward Churchill

John Bruce at In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood has a typically incisive post on the Ward Churchill affair:
The real issue in the Churchill scandal, it seems increasingly clear to me, is the lack of transparency in academic culture overall, with particular focus on how tenure decisions are made. I think the issue of 'political correctness' is a false lead, except insofar as it shows what a sham 'politically correct' views really are at a place like CU: the administrators appear to have justified hiring Churchill on the basis of false 'ethnicity', when this was most likely just a convenient beard for hiring a psychopath who'd charmed (or whatever else) the pants off them. Nor is it an issue of free speech; Churchill was a bad hire long before he started talking about 'little Eichmanns'. As I've discussed already here, though, the tools are available, and likely will be used, to fire him for unrestrained extramural speech, as they've been in other cases."

Yes. Lack of transparency is everywhere a problem, but it is particulary bad in academia, and particularly bad within academia at large institutions and state-run schools.

Let me describe how tenure decisions are made at Wheaton and then compare and contrast, so readers outside of academia (and perhaps those within) can see how the process works and can be corrupted.

You start with hiring, but I don't want to go into in specifics because Wheaton has a search going on right now. What I will say is: the department argues about how to define the job. Then an add gets wrangled over and written. Then the add goes in the Job List. We get 100+ applications that include cover letter and vita. We ask for "dossiers" on about 40 of those 100 -- dossiers include letters of recommendation, transcripts (which everybody ignores) and writing samples. We argue about those 40 finalists and whittle it down to 10. Three members of the department -- usually the chair of the search committee, who isn't always the department chair, but usually is, and two others -- interview the 10 candidates at the MLA conference. They return to Wheaton and discuss with the department. We invite 3 finalists to campus. We ask them to teach a class in their subject area, meet each member of the department formally, have a formal interview in front of the whole department (and several dinners, etc.) and meet the Provost. Department then decides who gets the job offer. The Provost has to approve.

Larger places operate similarly, with a few exceptions: most places don't involve the entire department in just about every aspect of the seach (we are only 12, so we can do that). Instead, a committee handles everything. Most places have the candidate give a lecture about his or her research rather than teach a class. This is the "job talk" that Ph.D. candidates prepare. Most places have several more layers of administration that have to be appeased, including one or more Deans. Wheaton has a Provost and two Associate Provosts, who are regular faculty members rotating through the job, and that's it. The Associate Provosts have no power over the job offer.

Ok, so the person is hired, usually on a two-year contract. After the first annual review (when the new assistant prof. submits all scholarship, teaching, service, etc., and writes a long letter about it and then responds to the chair's response... Wheaton loves long, discursive, self-analytical paperwork, oh yes we do), the department chair and the tenured members of the department discuss the new hire. If everything seems to be progressing, and the person seems to be a good fit for the department, a second, 4-year contract is offered. At this point the person is on track for a tenure review. No one outside the department has reviewed scholarship or teaching.

In the summer before the sixth year, the department prepares to bring the assistant professor up for tenure. Every member of the deparment must write a letter (either or recommendation or not; it's confidential, but everybody has to write a letter). The tenure candidate has to submit the names of six outside referees who can judge the scholarship. These people have to have an 'arms length' relationship -- no shared publications, not previous teachers, etc. -- the candidate has to promise not to contact these people from that point on until the end of the process. Only the Provost and the Tenure Committee knows which outside reviewers will be chosen, and which will agree to serve, but almost no one ever turns down such an important job.

Now to the tenure committee, who will decide our candidate's fate. At Wheaton we are very unusual in having no official administrative veto over tenure. That is, the decision is made by a 7-member committee that includes the President and Provost and 5 faculty. To be awarded tenure, the candidate must receive 5 votes. So even if the President and Provost vote "no," theoretically the faculty can all vote "yes" and prevail. The President does have a veto in the sense that it is the President that makes the recommendation to the Board of Trustees, but no President has ever gone against the committee. Since actual vote-counts are kept secret (i.e., I don't know if I was 7-0, 6-1, or 5-2), we don't know if it has ever been a 5-2, faculty against admin, but rumor has it that this has never happened either.

The tenure committee spends the entire Fall reading all of the candidate's scholarship, all student evaluations (i.e., not just the redacted numbers), letters from the department, other faculty, and current and former students (who are soliticted by the college). In November the letters from the outside referees come in. In the first week of January the committee meets and makes their decision. All proceedings are tape recorded, but the tapes are sealed in the archives for 25 years after the professor's retirement, unless there is an appeal.

How are other places different? There can be administrative veto by any number of Deans up the ladder to the Provost. The Provost or the President can also veto, and they don't need to give any reasons. There are also in-department vetoes at some places (we don't have one officially, but it is unlikely that someone would be tenured if their entire department wasn't behind them), and by this I mean that there are small committees, controlled by single individuals or small groups, that can effectively veto a candidate.

Where can there be corruption and malfeasance? Obviously at any stage where there is a veto that doesn't need to be explained. The next most obvious places are with the selection of outside referees. Due to super sub-specialization, it is at least theoretically possible for people to choose their friends or obvious supporters and for the Provost and Tenure Committee not to know that this has happened. If there isn't an obvious paper trail, the Provost and President won't see that the possible conflict of interest. People do look out for their friends and political fellow travelers. And the biggest problem of all is that nobody really wants to be a bad guy. So once someone gets to the tenure process, it's very hard to stop it from happening. Referees don't really want to write negative reviews. Faculty members don't want to write negative letters (they'd rather just ignore the whole thing in many, but not all, cases). Most people are only willing to be negative when it appears to be safe--thus the over-emphasis on any hint of certain politics. It's easy, make the writer feel righteous, and doesn't require cross-disciplinary work.

There is also the opportunity, as appears to have happened with That Moron Ward Churchill, to have administrators put pressure on the department. It can be--at least theoretically, though I haven't seen this at Wheaton--as clear as the administrator suggesting that the tenure-line (i.e., the ability to hire a full-time person for that particular field, etc.) is dependent upon the department making a certain kind of hire. This could be affirmative action (i.e., if you don't hire a certain gender, race, etc., don't bother hiring at all), it could be place of Ph.D. (get a Chicago grad or don't bother), or it could be even a certain person, which again appears to have happened with That Moron Ward Churchill.

There is also the problem of the minds of the hiring and tenure committees. I have seen inviduals make what were to me absolutely bizzarre decisions, suggesting to me that they believed in very weird stuff. I'm sure there are some people at CU who would have voted for Churchill because they thought he was American Indian no matter how bad his scholarship was. They may not even have admitted this to themselves. If his scholarship were of a specific kind of badness (i.e., so convoluted as to be opaque), they may even have convinced themselves that he was too smart, that what he was doing was too cutting-edge, for them to judge.

Well, it's late and I've got a lot of English 101 papers to grade, so I have to bring this to a close for now. There is a process as best I can describe it. I hope that this adds a little transparency to the system, though it's obviously not the real transparency in every case the John Bruce is really calling for. And I agree with John. Although I understand the privacy and confidentiality arguments (we hope referees and othes are more likely to be honest when they know that their recommendtions are confidential), all the secrecy allows for dishonesty and corruption -- and their appearance even when their actuality isn't there. I'd like to see a lot more transparency at least in the sense of quantitative measurements: Scholar X, awarded tenure, had Y pages of publications, Z student evaluations, etc. Same for graduate student funding, by the way: I'd like to see student grades and test-scores posted (without names) with funded/not-funded breakdowns. That way people could see where they fall (in both tenure and funding) and argue their case if they are out-performing people who are ranked above them. But I also know that it is not that simple, and that many quantitative measurements of scholarship (such as number of pages) and teaching (such as the raw numbers of student evaluations) are not always good proxies for scholarship, teaching and service.


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