Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why do college tenure committees always attract such assholes?

It's been a while.  Nice to hear from several of you.  The whole Amy Bishop tenure-denial/shooting thing continues to burn, but now is simmering down.  It's funny to read story after story about how oh no tenure had nothing to do with it, tenure needs to be abolished (the right-wing types there mainly), her research wasn't good enough anyhow, it all happened last year, etc. etc.  She was a homicidal nut yes we all concede that.  Not your normal kind of person.  People everyday deal with far worse than tenure denial and never go off on shooting sprees.  Of course, conceded, yes, I agree.  But to pretend the denial was not a factor, I just don't get that.  Everyone, even in the educational community (e.g. the blogs on Insidehighered, the Chronicle, etc.) seems to want to go to extremes to minimize the tenure-denial (possible) contribution.  I keep adding links to my delicous tag related to this story--well up in the high 30s in links now--and most of those entries have a similar theme.

But let's move on for the time being at least.  Blogger user mmusgrove writes in a comment on this blog:
I got through the process successfully at the new job, but I still can't look closely at the process. I can't read anyone else's dossier, for example.
This is a statement I can very much agree with.  Even though I did not make it through my second tenure application, I could see that if I had made it, it would have been very difficult to serve on a P&T committee.  I imagine I'd be overly generous by way of compensation, knowing the living hell that awaits those flushed out of the system.  But--therein lies the problem.  There is a self-selection effect for college tenure committees.  Those people who have actual human emotions and sympathy tend to select themselves out of the process.  Or they are selected out by their peers.  This then leads to a preponderance of assholes on the college committee.  I don't think it happens as much at the department level.  At that level there is a enough forced sharing around of responsibilities that there is at least a chance that you might get someone with actual humanity involved occasionally.  At the college level, it is usually an elected position.  Someone has to say to themselves "Ya, I WANT to do that."

Another corollary of this is that when you look at smaller colleges, then the department often does not have ANY official role, other than to help the candidate prepare the documents and write supporting letters.  That was my situation.  There was no actual vote in my department, it was not an actual official part of the process. As such, the college level committee came to have much more importance.

The thing is I can remember having this sense going way back, before I was even in a tenure-track position.  You'd meet faculty members and the nice ones, the reasonable ones, you'd find out they were always on the library committee or the athletics committee, or something like that.  The raging assholes always somehow find a home on the tenure committee.

This is part of a more general phenomenon, IMO.  I've always said (humorously--mainly!) that you have to watch professors always when you deal with them.  They can seem nice on the outside, but inside most professors is a hidden wellspring of bitterness and retribution that can come out at unexpected times.  I don't know if I was that way when I was a professor.  I hope not.  But then again the system selected me out.

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