Sep 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Independence is not a binary state. And that's part of the problem. Independence is something you grow into, and I admit that while I am certainly more independent now than I was 40 years ago, there are still lots of people, senior, junior, trainee and staff upon whom I depend. [which raises the question of what is the opposite of independence? dependence? but don't we all depend on something to some extent? But I digress].

Yet tenure committees, hiring committees are all searching for "independence" and evaluating it as part of their job.

A friend, I've got a few, at another university, who sits on her department Tenure Committee got in touch with me. For advice. She's young. She's ambitious, and she's very very good and just got tenured. So she's safe right? Not quite. Here's her problem (with some details changed to protect everybody involved).

My friend & the dept level TC are being pressured by their (very powerful) chair (Dr. VPC) for a number of more explicit criteria for tenure. Dr. VPC wants specifics like "$X" and "# of Big Grants vs. # small grants".

Why? My friend says that it was the (unspoken) rule that one had to get their own money, their own projects for tenure, and that was what equaled "independence". But now Dr. VPC wants more "nuanced" guides, and explicitly stated that "superficial" things (such as independent lab meetings, and publishing without senior collaborators) are not valid. He may truly believe that this is for the Greater Good, and that The World Is Changing, and Big Labs and Big Collaboration are critical, and not amenable to existing standards. I was guessing not. And my friend said not. There is a young faculty, working with the chair, and so we all say "ah". and then we all say "wtf?".  It's politics.

While my friend has tenure, she is still young. She is funded now, but making enemies of senior people is not considered a pathway to success. I asked her to think of the biggest wannabe BSD male colleague she's got. I asked her to think "what would he say to powerful alpha-males?". And she laughed (virtually). That doesn't mean it's a wise thing for her to stand up and fight this. I only want to point out that there are many potential responses.

My advice to her was to talk, confidentially, to some of the more senior people on the committee. By and large senior people guard their prerogatives strongly. My last advice to her was: know what the battle you are fighting is.The independence that is of concern here is not the independence of the folks coming up for tenure, it is the independence of the tenure committee to stand up to a powerful chair. And the chair may not even know that.


10 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    So the chair wants the criteria changed so that their non-independent jr faculty can clear tenure? Am I reading this right? Classic.

    • potnia theron says:

      I read the chair's logic, honest to himself, as:
      1. This person working with me is great. fantastic. AND deserves tenure.
      2. But the current guidelines, are vague and say only a couple of nebulous words that include "independence"
      3. Current views of independence do not recognize what I perceive as excellence, because Science Has Changed.
      4. Therefor we need to change guidelines to recognize This New World.

      I really think, albeit 2nd hand and hearsay, that the chair thinks this is not favoritism, but a recognition that things need to change, even if that recognition comes from his personal experience.

      Yes. Classic.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    "superficial" things (such as independent lab meetings, and publishing without senior collaborators) are not valid.

    Is Dr. VPC the senior collaborator that junior faculty will no longer have to worry about publishing without?

  • Ola says:

    Call me slow (it's Friday and I'm only on my first cup of coffee) but the nuanced writing here, as evidenced by the 2 posts above, is making it hard to define the probelm here.

    - Is it only that the chair wants to impose "harder" criteria instead of wishy-washy criteria? I don't necessarily know that that's a bad thing. At my MRU the criteria are pretty straightforward - if you renew an R01 then tenure is a walk in the park. Anything else and it'll be a trek. Tenure usually comes with a promotion, and with that comes an expectation of higher % salary covereage from grants, so it's a practicality issue - if this person doesn't have sufficient funding how are we going to pay their inflated salary for ever and ever?

    - Or is it that the chair is pressing for stricter criteria while simultaneously requesting a pass for his/her own prodigies? Does Dr. VPC have a program project, and one of his prodigal children is a PI on a sub-project, and he thinks that should count as much as having their own R01?

    - Does Dr. VPC's big vs. small grants argument fall into the "if you don't have a PPG you're not a player" category? Ugh! I thought most chairs grew out of that game when the NIH essentially stopped iving out PPGs a decade ago? Dr. VPC needs to get with the times - lean and mean is the new normal.

    • potnia theron says:

      My reading of the situation is that Dr VPC wants to loosen the criteria, although I suspect he would say he's trying to change the criteria to meet the changing face of Big Science.

      I appreciate that you think my writing was "nuanced" as opposed to perhaps "confusing" or "unclear". Let me ammend:

      Current criteria (what the chair wants changed), at least as explained by my friend is that "independence" means that you have an "independent" line of research on which you, the TT candidate are the senior author, and that your former mentors, are not co-authors. The criteria are that your work is not being pushed/flogged/promoted by some BigDog who can get stuff into journals on name-basis. (we can talk later about journal reviews).

      But again, I see the meta-problem as one of committee vs. chair independence. The committee feels it has a good working definition. The chair does not like this definition. We can look at the content/values of the definitions and express our view on what we think the criteria should be (for example, do you need glam pubs?). But there is also the issue of the committee having a voice that is different, and independent of the chair.

      This of course, could be the other way around: the chair could be the voice of reason (in our eyes), and the committee who has the deviant and unreasonable view.

      In my experience, the more different voices there are, the less likely we are to make either a type 1 or type 2 error in promotions.

  • ROStressed says:

    A few years ago my department went through a similar "make the criteria stricter" tenure re-write document phase, so that tenure decisions would be "easier". What stopped us from really spelling it out was the idea (theoretical) that our stricter guidelines would be used against us as a department at a higher level. Specifically, if as a department we felt that someone deserved tenure, but lacked in any one of many guideline boxes being checked, that there was a chance that person could be voted no at the university tenure committee and we we really have no recourse.

  • […] are some good comments on the independence post, to which I have written some (lengthy) […]

  • […] (I will forward the part about independent to my friend on the tenure committee). […]

Leave a Reply