Friday, May 06, 2005

The Truth about Tenure

A comment asked that I comment on the tenure process - and I will - sometime Real Soon Now.

In the meantime, I caught ER (sweeps ya know) last night, and Dr Carter got tenure, and Dr Lewis did not...
Dr Weaver tried to explain it to Dr Lewis: blah, blah, budgets, blah blah research blah blah; and then she got angry and in an unrealistic but interestingly truthful outburst she let it slip: "you're expected to have raised at least a million dollars in grants by your seventh year" (paraphrasing).

Er. That is it.

There are refinements; eg some institutions have a hard time dealing with "collaborations", this strange thing where more than one faculty member contributes to a grant or research effort. Some deal with it by assigning all the credit to the senior faculty member (I kid you not); some just pro-rate the credit; some have incredible elaborate non-zero-sum schemes for assigning partial credit (beware of those, they're often negative-sum).
Synergy may be in the vocabulary of admins, but 99% of them don't know what it means. Resident Dean excepted of course.

Oh, and if they start talking about "inter-disciplinary" thingies, then run to your office and lock the door. What they mean is "we get other peoples money". No concept of sharing. My 3 year old does better than that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a cynic. But not entirely off the mark. At the institutions you are thinking about, research is a critical part of the job (sometimes the critical part). Fundraising is vital to scientific research in many fields: although start-up gets people going, a lab scientist usually can't be expected to continue to do excellent research without raising significant amounts of grant support. And the best gauge of future success in fundraising is past success.

The real trouble comes when people start to let the money stand in as a direct proxy for good science. In some fields, people can do great, exciting work without a lot of grant money. The requirement (or perceived requirement) for fundraising regardless of true need can be damaging to these folks (not to mention the taxpayer). And sometimes really good people who should be funded aren't funded, and a department needs to be courageous enough to take a risk on the future. (Of course, sometimes a courageous department also needs to say "no" to a good fundraiser who can't teach.) And the administration needs to avoid formulaic bean counting particularly if synergistic, multidisciplinary work is to be properly recognized and nurtured.

All that said, my impression had been that even the institutions with awful histories of bad tenure decisions (e.g., Harvard, MIT, ...) have been getting better, spurred perhaps by increasing competition for the best young people and the awesome rise in set-up costs associated with replacing someone who isn't tenured. That optimism has been shaken recently by a couple of well-known "errors" among people whose work I know pretty well. Most places do the right thing most of the time. But a decision that comes as a rude shock to the faculty member rather than simply a great disappointment implies that a mistake has been made somewhere, if not in the decision then in the mentoring. --resident dean

9:35 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

I don't know how that happened...

But, yeah, what he said.
Though I'll return to this topic, at great length, when I feel brave enough. Seriously.

Oh, and you said "mentor". Tee Hee.

Seriously, I know where the "mentor" concept is coming from; but it can't be forced - it can be encouraged, but I think it has to happen naturally with people who click or are already in a hierarchical relationship. It can't be commanded.

There're some interesting thought to be had on the US academic system (science sub-branch) as a feudal economy; with asymmetrically informed players, only some of whom know game theory and very few know iterated game theory. And I won't even get into the Mirrlees bidding instability.

11:51 PM  

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