Friday, January 31, 2014

Academic Shenanigans

Some years ago, I was at a major institution, and a graduate student told me about shenanigans in the research of someone in her lab. I never got the details, but there was some sort of scientific misconduct. And it was not clear what she could do, since she was a vulnerable graduate student. Some very distinguished scientists were involved, although the misconducting person was a postdoc in the lab. Eventually, some years later, a distinguished historian wrote a book about the events. Something fishy was going on. There was not only smoke, but also fire.

At the same time, I was told by a junior faculty member that the head of her research center wanted to divert research funds from her research grant to pay for administrative expenses (normally covered by indirects). The expenses were real, but were not built into the research grant. The head of the lab was very distinguished, but also had a national reputation for not being so kosher.  Nothing could be done, except to deny the head of the research center their request. The junior faculty member knew then and there they would have to leave. [In some fields, the head of a lab puts their names on all the papers, assumes that grants received by more juniors are in effect their own, etc.] So she went out and found another position at a good institutios, and then followed my usual counsel. Living well is the best revenge. Everyone knew that the head of the lab was disreputable, but the head was sufficiently powerful to get away with it until he had to leave one institution for another that was more willing to tolerate his shenanigans. The junior faculty member thrived at the new institutions, has a strong national reputation, and has been able to avoid being tarred by the head's nonsense.

In each case, you find that the institution will protect its most senior people if they are valuable and their misconduct is not too egregious. Junior people are best off getting out of the way, moving on, and realizing that chairs, deans, and provosts are less concerned with fairness than with maintaining their assets, however problematic they are.

Arrogance has no limits, so a distinguished senior faculty member or a dean, may well hire someone who would otherwise seem less than qualified. Perhaps a family friend, a lover, a payoff for other favors. Deans and chairs are quite willing to allow such anti-ringers to cause all sorts of trouble, make hell for colleagues, since they are insulated. There's nothing much to do, but stay away and the anti-ringer will self-destruct.

I use the word shenanigans rather than ethical lapses or corruption or illegality because these violations are about power and arrogance. Even if they were Ok by the rules, they would be awful.

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Rocky Graziano wrote a book "Somebody Up There Likes Me."

For about five years I served on a university committee. I did my work, and in fact I did much more than the normal amount of work, since I was asked to do so. I learned a lot, and it was interesting. It took up time, but this was my relaxation time from writing books, so it was a plus.

Recently at a dinner for 300, I found myself at my host's table. A few minutes into the dinner, my host leans forward and says to the people around the table, "I want to tell you about Martin. His work for my committee provided me with the guidance I valued most, since it was always in terms of making the institution stronger."  She went on a bit longer. I was surprised and also gratified. I had done my committee work since it was needed and it was interesting. I did not expect to be rewarded, rather this is what it means to be a professor. The glow is still there. (Manifestly this was a setup by the host--otherwise I would not be at her table, sitting just opposite her.)

"I'm staying out of it."

One of my colleagues, finding herself on a committee headed in a disastrous direction, tells me, "I'm staying out of it. Keeping my head down." She tells me that she only gets involved when the issues directly concern her and her projects, and for which there will be consequences.

I tend to put my head up, and I get shot regularly.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Smart is Not Enough

I have been thinking about the limits of smartness:

1. Some people  are often successful at scheming, successful at gaming the system, and may be more concerned with winning than with being balanced. Being smart would seem to help them be successful. (Dumb people are much the same, just that smart people are more successful at doing this.) Would you buy a used car from a smart person? Or, a dumb person? What you want are people who have high integrity and reliability, and who are capable. What you want is perseverance and deep insight. What you want is commitment to the work and to others.

     In the law, often devices are developed to achieve a particular result, or a position is held that would seem to provide the outcomes the actor would wish. But if the devices or positions don't do what the advocate wants, they modify the devices to get the right outcome. 

Many social scientists value transactions and rules over substance, for often the social science focuses on mechanisms and rules than on specific outcomes.

1a. Historically, "smart" was contrasted with cultured or gentlemanly, so to speak.  Smart people were "Jews," while those with souls and depth were "Aryan."

2. Another issue: Why, given our standards and issues, are professors, who may publish and teach well, perhaps not so deep. One answer is that depth and the like are not what we value in the community of scholars who build on each others' work.  

3. Imagine designing a system of corporate governance and corporate/contract law that would encourage people to do the right thing. Make the banks safe for the world, so to speak.

4. Imagine designing a legal regime so that poverty, as we conceive of it, is much less likely. Imagine designing a legal regime where rent-seeking behavior were less likely and discouraged. Imagine designing a faculty evaluation system that rewarded depth.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

When Women Are Replaced by Guns

When I was younger, Mickey Spillane was thought to be the most adventurous of crime writers, and somehow I kept imagining the covers of his books in paperback featuring scantily clad women, Spillane being a ladies' man. I never read those books, or even saw them, so my imagining was surely unreliable. But see,

Even an early Jean-Paul Sartre paperback had such a cover.

I am again reading detective/crime/suspense novels. "Women and sex" are still there, but there is remarkably little detail or narrative about sexual events. Rather, the detail lies in the guns and rifles and sniper weaponry, the Barrett 50mm being the most horsehung of the lot, so to speak.  The flight of the bullet (from a Barrett) is detailed in one Lee Child novel, Die Trying, with tension and technical description, two whole pages in my copy. I have noticed that in many novels that the weaponry, the guns, the rifles, etc, are given in great specificity and with close attention to detail. Sex happens but the description is brief.

Furstenberg's, Behind the Academic Curtain (my review)

Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD (Chicago Guides to Academic Life) (Paperback) by Frank Furstenberg

Furstenberg provides wise and sensible advice, drawing from a lifetime career at U of Penn in sociology, for all scholars in all fields, from applying to graduate school, to PhD, to a first job, to retirement. I found his thoughts on the last phase of a career, the "endgame," and retirement to be thoughtful and quite prudent. Throughout, his suggestions and guidance are right on. I suspect that those in laboratory sciences or mathematics or theoretical science fields are in a slightly different position, at least as graduate students. There are a number of guidebooks for budding natural scientists that may be good supplements.

If you listen to his advice, you will be better off. If you are studying higher education, again and again he points to lacunae in the research literature, and that may well suggest vital research topics.

I am a professor and I recently published a book with some of the goals of "Behind the Academic Curtain" (mine is "The Scholar's Survival Manual," Indiana U Press). So I bought the book and read it with my own work in mind as well as all the other books I have seen that advise scholars. My book is a complement to his, meant more as monitory guidance, for when you hear Furstenberg's advice and then do not really listen. I spend more time on pathologies and misdirections. In general, what is most tragic about scholarly life (and this is of course much more general) is that most people know more or less what they ought do but believe they might do something else and succeed--and so they get hit by the proverbial truck. On the other hand, Furstenberg's and my book, both give away the secret handshakes and tacit premises of the scholarly life.

It's wonderful to see the different tone of each book. But in practical terms they say the same thing. However, in practical terms what is crucial is which book will penetrate your defenses so you learn what they are trying to teach you.