Sunday mornings are for tenure reviews.  Huh?  I am reading stuff to evaluate a scholar for whether he/she is worthy of tenure.  This is a standard part of the tenure process–to have outside scholars read a bunch of a candidate’s work and then indicate whether they have made a significant contribution and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, this is a fair amount of work, almost always unpaid.  So, I have gotten a bit cranky when I do it these days.

Sunday mornings are for tenure reviews.  Huh?  I am reading stuff to evaluate a scholar for whether he/she is worthy of tenure.  This is a standard part of the tenure process–to have outside scholars read a bunch of a candidate’s work and then indicate whether they have made a significant contribution and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, this is a fair amount of work, almost always unpaid.  So, I have gotten a bit cranky when I do it these days.

What makes me really cranky?  Being asked to compare a tenure/promotion candidate to the top scholars in the field.  I don’t even like comparing people to others who are at the same point in their career.  Why?  Because in my mind, tenure is not about whether you are the most cited person (probably what administrators think of as “best”), but whether one has made a contribution and whether one is likely to continue to do so.  When I consider a tenure candidate, my basic question is whether they have done enough interesting, well-executed research and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  That latter part is mostly a guess based on whether the person’s research has moved beyond the dissertation–if they keep asking new questions and managing to publish their answers to such stuff, that suggests a good trajectory.

Asking folks to be ranked is problematic unless I have very good knowledge of the support they receive.  Person x may have five more publications, but they may also have a much lower teaching load, free research assistants, and ample funding compared to person y.  How does one rank different scholars if one does not know how much support they have received from their schools?  It would seem to be unfair to penalize with lower rankings those who got a lot of good work done despite limited resources if there are other folks who got as much or more work but with far more resources. Given that there are all kinds of problems that breed path dependencies that lead to people getting less support (discrimination due to race, gender, first generation-ness, etc), it would also seem that ranking, rather than focusing on contribution to knowledge, would be replicating or intensifying the legacies of the past.

I decided to include this text in letters I write from now on:
I got have gotten much support on twitter for this stance, and folks have asked if they could borrow this text.  Of course, because if we all agree not to rank candidates, then the universities that ask for it will have to drop their focus on that question.  I understand this is a collective action problem, and, as the text above indicates, I am worried that by not following the instructions given to me by some of the folks wanting letters, I might be hurting the candidate.  Hence, I am explicit about it and want more company.

It would be a minor revolution, but it would also perhaps reduce that whole “comparison is the thief of joy” envy/jealousy/competition dynamic and return our business back to where it should be–fostering better understanding.  And, yes, sometimes I get idealistic.  Perhaps I get more idealistic when it makes it easier for me to dodge work, as ranking candidates is not only unpleasant but requires more research.


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