Friday, March 14, 2014

Tenure, Lemons, and Devil's Advocates

Given today's proposed discussion of our tenuring etc. procedures, the following may be of interest. (I once wrote two reports on Jesus of Nazareth, both "tenuring" and not. Meant to be fair but coming out on different sides.) Keep in mind that the UCAPT has diverse members, and any claim you make is likely to be tested by one of the members (citation counts, choices of referees, summary of letters, quality of work by  being read by someone else, ...)

1. When you are proposing someone for appointment, promotion, or tenure, there are two intrinsic problems: the Lemons problem, the Devil's Advocate.

a. There is an asymmetry of information between one level and the further up ones. You know more about the candidate than does the UCAPT. So you are much like Akerlof's used car salesman: your price will be discounted by the buyer, unless you offer a warranty or ...

b. Reports need to be balanced and fair so that the Lemons do not immediately come up. A Devil's Advocate should be on the committee to take the opposite position to force the committee to face problems directly. For example, have the letters' contents been fairly assessed rather than picked for one position.

2. The ad hoc committee should include one person outside the department/field, in effect an agent of the School. The letter writers should be seen as fair, not bunched in any way, and authoritative. Detailed analysis, of strengths and weaknesses, detailed reports on the scholarship (read the papers!), teaching evidence. Also, always assume that someone up there is likely to read your report with a critical eye. Professors are trained to be skeptics. If you hide something, it is more than likely to be discovered, and your whole report will be discounted. There are almost no candidates who are flawless, and often deep weaknesses do not lead to negative reports at all.

The comparison cohort should be the top people in the field, those at roughly the same stage in their careers as the candidate, and perhaps some more senior. Of course, if the university's aspirations are modest, you need to have comparable modest comparisons.

3. The committee should have a frank discussion of the strengths and weaknesses. In general, what you see is what you get, so expectations of much weaker or stronger performance five years down the line are unlikely to be fulfilled. 

4. In the departmental/field discussion, there should be enough time to air issues, and the committee report should have all the information needed such as citations counts or whatever. One member of the department might well take the Devil's Advocate role here. It may be important to have a small enough group (say all tenured for tenure decisions) so that negative remarks are seen as being in camera and not being a bad member. The report of the discussion should never dismiss negatives, or interpret the vote. It should be substantive. 

5. At all levels, do not discount a dissenting referee letter. Deal with its content. You chose your witnesses.

6. The School's APT is there to represent the School, and to make sure that departments/fields have comparable and high standards. They are concerned with scholarship (and teaching and service), not School needs. Again, enough time needs to be allowed for real discussion and dissent.

7. If you have gone this far, the dean is not making excuses for problems in earlier levels, but summarizing, weighing, and taking into account institutional needs.

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