Quite Possibly the Worst Justification for Confidentiality in Tenure Cases

March 26, 2008

In a recent post Uncertain Chad opines that a “very good reason” for the “veil of confidentiality surrounding tenure decisions” is so that external referees will be free to derail someone’s career with unsubstantiated accusations of scientific misconduct. This is utter malarkey. In the multiplicity of reasons for confidentiality, good or bad, this is possibly the worst.

In reviewing a blog entry from Timothy Burke, Chad expounds his own position:

…there are very good reasons for the veil of confidentiality surrounding tenure decisions. If you’re going to make this sort of evaluation honestly, you need the people involved– colleagues, external reviewers, students– to feel like they can speak freely. This obviously precludes throwing the whole thing open later on: announcing “We denied Prof. Jones tenure because Prof. Jones (no relation) at OtherUniversity suspected her work was plagiarised” wrecks the whole thing, and will make the next Prof. Jones (no relation) think twice before speaking out, even if she has a very good reason to doubt a given candidate.

“Suspected”? Are you kidding me? As a reason for denying tenure? Is this really the first or best reason Chad can come up with for confidentiality? Does he not see how this is a justification for bias and witch hunting? Or, as I discussed in a previous case, is he asserting that the interjection of irrelevant personal bias into the tenure decision is a good thing? I hope not. Surely he is not saying this, is he?
Look I’m in agreement that the external referees need to be able to speak freely. To give their objective and unbiased assessment of the tenure candidate vis a vis the academic issues at hand (productivity, potential, impact, what have you). Sure. They should not, however, feel free to accuse the tenure candidate of scientific misconduct.
Frequent readers will see the obvious links to my usual position that watercooler muttering about someone’s scientific misconduct is not just personally reprehensible but also has a corrosive effect on the scientific enterprise. If you want to use your suspicions about someone’s data or conduct anywhere but the confines of your own head, I think you better have some damn good evidence. The higher the “stakes” of your use of your opinion, the solider your data should be. Tenure decisions are pretty high stakes.
There’s more from Chad to suggest that I’m not merely missing his point:

While the existence of a thick dossier of reviews from external scholars may look objective and verifiable, that doesn’t mean it is an objective assessment. There are any number of wholly irrational academic feuds out there, and some remarkably bitter divisions between groups of scholars in the same discipline. It’s not that common in the sciences, but there are groups within some humanities disciplines that reject the entire methodology of other groups in the same discipline for political reasons.

Huh? So just because processes which are supposed to be objective fall victim to non-objective sources of personal bias this means we should just throw up our hands? No, no, no, no, NO! What we should be doing, while we recognize the existence of “contamination” of any review process with bias, is to assert firmly that the process expects objectivity. That the “dossier” is supposed to indeed be “objective and verifiable”. There is a logical error being made here in that while efforts to make a tenure dossier “objective and verifiable” may fail to achieve the standard, this does not mean that dossiers always fail to be objective.
What we should not be doing is embracing bias by supposing the first rationale for confidentiality is to protect unsubstantiated accusations of scientific misconduct.
We end with the following observation from Chad:

And, of course, the make-or-break nature of the decision gives people who have been denied tenure every incentive to kick up a huge fuss, which leads to all manner of accusations of bias and bad -isms, which are hard to defend against without breaking confidentiality, and on, and on…

I’ll agree with Chad that the default reaction to any tenure denial may be to assert bias and malfeasance. Even when no such bad behavior exists. Fine. However, one starts to get the impression that Chad’s sympathies lie with the consideration that most every tenure-denial is in fact justified. This may be true, it may not. What is concerning is an apparent inability (based on that prior example as well) to recognize that personal bias in the tenure process is not to be accepted or embraced but rather to be rooted out with great vigor.
I, for one, reject the notion that we should tolerate or accept biased decision making in academic careers.

5 Responses to “Quite Possibly the Worst Justification for Confidentiality in Tenure Cases”

  1. Becca Says:

    Far be it from me to tear down an idealist (particularly one who’s ideals I agree with!), but, to be blunt….
    I, for one, reject the notion that human beings are fully capable of totally unbiased decision making in any careers.
    But aside from the philosophical objections, what do you think are ‘best practices’ for tenure decisions? What standards should people be evaluated on? How should it work?


  2. It’s unlikely any tenure letter could remain confidential in the face of a lawsuit. In writing one, one should probably assume that the letter has some significant probability of becoming public.
    I have limited sympathy for the overabundance of secrecy in the sciences, in any case. If you can substantiate your opinion, you shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to sign your name to it. If you can’t, you shouldn’t be offering it. People advance fear of retaliation as a reason to protect confidentiality, but IMO this is a bit pointless. I can usually deduce with about 90% confidence who my referees on papers and grants are, from the writing style and other internal evidence. I’m sure most everyone else can too.
    So why don’t we dispense with the entire facade of confidentiality? The benefits of openness and accountability far outweigh the cost that some subset of referees might be unwilling to say in public what they’d say in private.


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    I can usually deduce with about 90% confidence who my referees on papers and grants are, from the writing style and other internal evidence. I’m sure most everyone else can too.

    Most people grossly overestimate their ability to identify anonymous reviewers.


  4. Barn Owl Says:

    I, for one, reject the notion that we should tolerate or accept biased decision making in academic careers.
    Absolutely. The “veil of confidentiality” crap is yet another one of those secret society characteristics of academic science that makes people outside the “academy” suspicious, resentful, disdainful, or amused. If you want secrecy and intrigue and arcane rituals (as well as exclusion of women, and probably minorities as well), then go join a Masonic Temple.
    I write this with eye-rolling rather than bitterness, and as a scientist who very recently got tenure. The process at my university was reasonably transparent, and not at all mysterious to navigate. I suggested names of students, colleagues in teaching and administrative duries, and research collaborators with whom I’ve published or served on study sections, and to whom I’ve sent transgenic mice, tumor cell lines, protocols, etc. Most of those individuals either e-mailed me or talked directly to me about what they discussed in the letters they wrote. My chair, and the departmental P&T committee, will only put people up for whom tenure is pretty much a slam dunk, so the whole thing was rather anti-climactic in the end. But a relief, nevertheless, in these uncertain economic times.
    OK, I’ll just be honest, rather than vague…the US economy is in the toilet, clinging to a tu….


  5. Jim Thomerson Says:

    If you have to think about whether a colleague should be given tenure, vote NO.


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