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Joining the Ranks: Demystifying Harvard's Tenure System
April 15, 2013 9:44 AM   Subscribe

'“The ad hoc process is greatly shrouded in mystery; remarkably little is written about it,” says current Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Development Judith D. Singer. She smirks wryly as she swigs coffee from her mug, as if this is something she’s explained a hundred times before. “What the ad hoc process does is it takes a recommendation that has come up out of a department, been through a dean, and says, ‘Let’s look at this with a fresh set of eyes. Let’s look at the totality of the evidence and make a dispassionate decision about whether the recommendations that have come up are really in the best interest of the University,’” says Singer.'
posted by un petit cadeau (26 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Having been through a tenure process, this sounds absolutely horrible. The lack of transparency speaks volumes about the shared governance problem as well. I guess the Harvard name is worth it, but... yeesh.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:58 AM on April 15, 2013


Mayor C. Randall Poopenmayer: Professor Wernstrom, can you save my city?
Professor Ogden Wernstrom: Of course, but it'll cost you. First, I'll need tenure.
Mayor C. Randall Poopenmayer: Done.
Professor Ogden Wernstrom: And a big research grant.
Mayor C. Randall Poopenmayer: You got it.
Professor Ogden Wernstrom: Also, access to a lab, and five graduate students, at least three of them Chinese.
Mayor C. Randall Poopenmayer: All right, done. What's your plan?
Professor Ogden Wernstrom: What plan? I'm set for life. Au revoir, suckers!
Leela: That rat! Do something!
Mayor C. Randall Poopenmayer: I wish I could, but he's got tenure.
posted by Fizz at 10:01 AM on April 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


Going through a tenure process now, and I agree with GenjiandProust: this is awful.

Here, let me translate out of PR-speak:

"Let’s look at this with a fresh set of eyes. Let’s look at the totality of the evidence and make a dispassionate decision about whether the recommendations that have come up are really in the best interest of the University" means "Let's either do nothing, but spend a lot of money doing it, or have people who by definition know less about the case than the department substantively reverse the department's decision."

“And it’s not typically a 'yes' or a 'no' or a 'maybe'; it’s what are the strengths, what are the weaknesses, and on balance, where do you make a decision? There’s much more nuance than many people think. I think a lot of people think it is about voting; that it’s very hard and fast. It is more about understanding the contribution of this individual.” As with almost any holistic evaluation, what this really means is "We don't need to give a shit what you've done or haven't done. If we don't like you for whatever reason, You. Are. Fucked., and we'll come up with some post-hoc rationalization for that." except...

"The meeting lasts around three hours. No notes are taken. No votes are taken." obviously means "We're denying tenure candidates any paper trail that they might use in legal or quasilegal matters. We want to ensure that we can continue to turn people down using criteria such as race, sex, ethnicity, and religion, should we want to, that would cause us to lose legal battles if they became known."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:18 AM on April 15, 2013 [17 favorites]


Even those who argue that the process can be inhumane and, in some cases, even lead to wrong outcomes, tend to agree that the process most often works as it should. Obtaining tenure at Harvard should be difficult; it is a question of whether the process is straightforward, or even works in the best interest of the University.

I don't think the article gave enough voice for those who really do question the humanity of such self-propagating decision processes. If any part of it is inhumane, then it is so as a whole; there's no such thing as only sometimes inhumane. The article comes across as really tame, with "wrong outcomes" being some sort of euphemism, when it should really be using the lens of institutional politics and power. Suddenly that Black Swan guy who is always criticizing academia makes more sense; maybe they should have interviewed more people like him rather than all the victors.
posted by polymodus at 10:23 AM on April 15, 2013


Harvard, Yale, and to a lesser extent Princeton have been notorious for--well, for ever--for being "collapsing chairs" if you're a junior scholar, not least because Harvard and Yale don't follow the standard convention of linking tenure and promotion to associate professor. (Somewhat bizarrely, some departments at Yale apparently have a habit of getting annoyed when their junior faculty jump ship prematurely, as though it's odd that people want procedural transparency and the possibility of a permanent job.) Part of the push to tenure folks at Harvard came about from the exceptionally slow-dawning realization that, in fact, "hey, I came from Harvard" is no longer the reliable stepping-stone to a new job that it once was.

But yeah, the "procedures" described here are scandalous (although tenure at private institutions has always had the rep for being scarier than public ones--it's a sight harder to win a wrongful-denial suit if you're at a private school).

As for whether or not it works: I suspect if you asked faculty in different fields about the rep of Harvard's graduate programs, at least, you'd get wildly varying answers. Some of the doctorates are not exactly skeleton keys for opening doors to employment.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:29 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Note that 'denied tenure from harvard' with some reasonable demonstration of academic productivity continues to be an almost guaranteed ticket to another job at a Research I institution.
posted by lalochezia at 10:42 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Decay and corruption tend to spread. And Harvard, as the oldest pile of buildings, has the most corruption underlying its existence, the tenure process being no exception. These are the magic words that we all need to start repeating, to ourselves and out loud, to break the world out of the spell that this pile of bricks has us under:
It's just another university. Nothing that happens there is any more important than anything that happens at any other large university.
Doesn't that feel better? Breathing easier yet? I know I am. Now let's all go nominate the bullshit Wikipedia articles on every piddling aspect of life on Harvard campus for speedy deletion for non-notability and move on with our collective intellectual lives.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:48 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Was anyone else expecting a paragraph that described how the acolytestenure committee donned peaked and hooded robes and gave the sign of signs before entering the star chamber? By bell, book and candle I abjure thee, begone, thou foul adjunct....
posted by Diablevert at 10:51 AM on April 15, 2013


Harvard, as the oldest pile of buildings, has the most corruption underlying its existence, the tenure process being no exception

Perhaps you haven't read the article, or missed that it didn't even have a tenure process until 2003? The entirety of what's interesting about this subject is, in fact, the institution's late-breaking attempt to (at least appear to) play by the same rules as everyone else rather than continuing to claim exceptional status. That's the weird compromise that results in the outward appearance of a rational, formal process, but with a secretive smoke-filled room behind the scenes.
posted by RogerB at 10:55 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I went through tenure review it was so stressful I was put on anxiety meds, and that was at a public institution with a really pretty transparent process. I can't imagine living this nightmare, but it's par for the course for full-time university work these days: you wanna work here? Fine, it's a privilege so we're going to underpay and overwork you and cut benefits from underneath you and increase your workload year-to-year and reduce any support your teaching/research/etc. might have and you'll like it because over 50% of all university instruction is now delivered by part-time instructors so you're lucky to have a full-time gig anywhere.

Also, you have to pay your own moving expenses.

Truly, though, regarding Harvard specifically, we all need to repeat 1adam12's mantra: It's just another university. Nothing that happens there is any more important than anything that happens at any other large university. While the glut of very qualified people looking for higher ed teaching positions is bad for those of us in the workplace, it's ultimately good for students and institutions as the quality of faculty has gone up considerably in most places in the past 2 or 3 decades.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:56 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


The cases are rarely cut and dry. Negative witnesses are often called in to dissent the promotion. “Even in a canonization there’s a devil’s advocate,” says Singer, “and that’s part of what the ad hoc process is designed to do: to raise all of the questions and say, ‘Are they of sufficient concern to not make a tenure appointment?’”

Actually, they don't have a "devil's advocate" in the canonization process any more, though they do look at negative testimony and evidence.
posted by Jahaza at 10:56 AM on April 15, 2013


Thankfully, Judith D. Singer is a statistics professor, not a religion professor. On the other hand, the magazine obviously doesn't have Harvard-quality fact checking.
posted by Jahaza at 10:58 AM on April 15, 2013


Seems fairly unwholesome, to say the least, but I believe that many if not just about all universities that are not among the "elite" also have their own forms of distinctly unsavory hoops to jump through to join the club. I recall sitting at a table with many tenured professors from a major mid-western universities--I had joined a friend there for a drink at MLA--and they were discussing a candidate coming up for tenure. One prof: He has some 6 or so good articles published. The other one: Yes, but that is not a book, is it.
posted by Postroad at 10:59 AM on April 15, 2013


"the magazine obviously doesn't have Harvard-quality fact checking"

The Crimson is the student-run newspaper, fwiw.
posted by sriracha at 11:03 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Crimson is the student-run newspaper, fwiw.

Duh, yes.
posted by Jahaza at 11:07 AM on April 15, 2013


This article makes some interesting claims that could be investigated further, such as that "senior faculty mentors formally and informally advise junior colleagues on their early courses and help facilitate research and publishing opportunities." Does anyone actually believe this?
posted by cushie at 11:38 AM on April 15, 2013


"We as a university, Harvard, are looking to confer tenure on scholars of the first order.”

Signal #13 you're talking to someone connected to Harvard: gratuitous use of the word "Harvard"
posted by brain_drain at 11:54 AM on April 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Based on many discussions with those in academia, my understanding of the Harvard tenure process is that it goes as follows:

"Can I have tenure?"

"No."
posted by kyrademon at 12:37 PM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's what I don't get: How is "...Harvard’s ad hoc process remains among the most thorough and fair tenure systems in higher education." the conclusion of an article that spends most of its time demonstrating the exact opposite?
posted by yellowcandy at 8:16 PM on April 15, 2013


Here's a fun game you can play at home: try to smirk wryly while simultaneously swigging coffee.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:34 PM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


an article that spends most of its time demonstrating the exact opposite

The operative words are thorough and fair. It's totally fair depending on who it's being fair to and thorough as in if they don't like you they'll say that they were able to find a reason. Not that they have to tell you what it was. But they did do a thorough analysis.

I'm was in the sciences in a pretty durned good department and the small sample size showed two primary tactics. One was to "do all the right things" inlcuding bringing in primary and secondary school involvement, mentoring lots of work-study/co-op/honours undergrads, delegate managerial mentorship to graduate students for career training, overseeing journal clubs, hosting "brown bag lunches" to mentor grad students at large, manage to woo name-recognition names to come to talk, and even getting the newspaper and television media in. And, of course, host "cool parties" at conferences and being able to have some of the more influential or fun people attend (they usually beget one another and being known as a good in-between can do wonders).

Getting lucky and having a sleeper superstar grad student (not me) publish big at just the right time helps.

The other route was to publish in good journals regularly and graduate PhDs and keep publishing in good journals and keep... which gets the serious government grants regularly enough so that you can afford to run a lab of that calibre. This is hard work even if you love doing this kind of science.
posted by porpoise at 9:35 PM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


For every unsuccessful tenure case at Harvard, there are hundreds- HUNDREDS- of people who applied for the position and didn't come close, not within a light year close, to getting shortlisted.

I can't feel sorry for the winner. I can't.

Incidentally, my department has never denied a single tenure applicant (not that anybody can remember), so my advice is to find an academic position in Canada. You only need a pulse, and not a strong one, to get tenure at most universities here.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:44 PM on April 15, 2013


My impression of being a junior professor at Harvard was that it was a great deal-- instead of spending 7 years stressing about whether you were going to get tenure or not, you knew for a fact that you were not going to get tenure, so you had nothing to worry about. You were going to be back on the job market in 7 years, and your only hope at coming back to Havard was if you became famous and Harcard called you up in 20 years inviting you to take a tenured position.
posted by deanc at 6:05 AM on April 16, 2013


Not that they would ever have been interested in me, but... no. Being an assistant at Harvard seems pretty much like being on a postdoc. For sure, a long postdoc, and one that's well-paid and flashy. But still basically a postdoc.

Yeah, you'll probably be able to step into another job during your stay there. But leaving as an assistant is always dicey because you never know what the market is going to look like three years from now -- maybe you can still get a job, but the jobs that are available might well be far less attractive than the other jobs you were offered three years ago. And if you stick around until you're an untenured associate, then something like 90% of the jobs disappear unless you're willing to accept a demotion (*and* can convince people that you mean it), and what the restricted job market for associates will look like in 4 or 6 or 8 years is truly a roll of the dice.

So... nope. Not when there are other very good departments (and in my field, better departments) that have realistic tenure tracks, and not when the sorts of people that Harvard ought to be interested in at the assistant level are likely to get offers from some of those departments too.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:50 AM on April 16, 2013


many if not just about all universities that are not among the "elite" also have their own forms of distinctly unsavory hoops to jump through to join the club. I recall sitting at a table with many tenured professors from a major mid-western universities--I had joined a friend there for a drink at MLA--and they were discussing a candidate coming up for tenure. One prof: He has some 6 or so good articles published. The other one: Yes, but that is not a book, is it.

I don't quite understand how having to write a book if you're in a book field (most of humanities) is "unsavory"?
posted by advil at 9:17 AM on April 16, 2013


I don't quite understand how having to write a book if you're in a book field (most of humanities) is "unsavory"?

Yeah, I don't really see what's unsavory. Normally, a "typical" tenured professor in a given department has "X" journal publications, "Y" conference publications, and "Z" books. If your publication output doesn't reach the threshold of what is expected for tenure in your department, then you don't get tenure. That's not unsavory, it's a sign that the university is behaving rationally. What's weird about Harvard is that there's effectively no known standard.

The previous standard was a more predictable one-- you're not going to get tenure, so don't bother expecting it. The problem, of course, is that everyone who gets a professorship at Harvard thinks they're a superstar and figures that they will be the one to get tenure when no one else did.
posted by deanc at 11:54 AM on April 16, 2013


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