Monday, June 9, 2014

Avoiding Rotten Promotion Committee Reports

When you are on a promotion committee, you are presumably advising your colleagues and dean about a candidate. You may have strong feelings about the candidate and their work. But that is of no matter. You choose a set of letter writers, who are seen to be a fair representation of scholars (it won't do to have a suite of letters from people known to be hostile to the candidate or their work), scholars whose opinions you would respect.

Then you get letters, and you read the scholarly work. You summarize the letters fairly. You have your own judgment of the work. If you are fortunate, there is some concordance of the two. If not, you need to write a report that is fair to the letters. Then you can say as a committee what you think of the judgment of the letter writers, without impugning the writers as such (for they are the witnesses you have chosen). (For example, they may provide only opinions without supporting evidence. Or they may provide a very well crafted case.) You can disagree and present your own position, and give reasons why. Those reasons are not a matter of your opinion, but they have to be substantive and reflect your scholarly judgement. 

Your conclusion must follow from what you have said. It's fine to disagree with the letters if you have a substantive case. Your colleagues and dean and provost may or may not find your argument convincing, but at least they can respect your report for its fairness and balance and considered judgment.

What you don't want to do  ever is to do a hatchet job or the reverse. Then your report lacks credibility, and in effect you have given others the chance to ignore what you want to say. Your own judgement may be excellent, but you cannot invoke your authority at this point. All you can do is make a powerful well argued and evidenced case. Your status is not a substitute for a case and good judgment. What we see again and again is that arrogant committee members do not realize that what they say has no force unless it is seen as drawing from what all consider as evidence and good argument. Your opinion matters only when it is supported by evidence and argument, even though your authority as a scholar would seem to give your opinion special weight. This is a bureaucratic process.

It's not a matter of whether X is good or excellent. It's a matter of the quality of your argument about X's quality.

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