Promote Faculty Based on Where They Work, Not Where They Don’t

Is it really fair to promote professors based in part on other university’s standards?

Like most professors, I often serve as an external referee when other universities are deciding whether to promote one of their faculty members. Although I’m glad to take on this important role, one line in the cover letters of some promotion review packets makes me highly uncomfortable: “as part of your review, please inform us whether this candidate would be promoted to the same rank if s/he were at your university”. I fear that this question is neither wise nor fair, for two reasons.

(1) Many Metrics of Professorial Success Vary with Institutional Mission

Diversity of structure and mission is one of the strengths of the ensemble of U.S. universities and matches the needs and aspirations of the diverse population they serve. One institution of higher learning may focus heavily on providing undergraduate education to young people who are the first in the family to go to college, while another focuses more on scholarship and still another on professional education to adults with established careers. What faculty are expected to do, quite appropriately, varies in response to such differences in institutional mission.

Stanford University — or indeed any one university – therefore shouldn’t be taken as the measure of all things in faculty promotion decisions. I was promoted at Stanford but there are other institutions where I would not deserve promotion because I am not very good at the core activities they ask their faculty to undertake. Likewise, someone who would probably not be promoted at Stanford could be the pluperfect professor at another institution with a different mission.

(2) Even for Common Metrics of Success, Opportunities to Achieve Differ Across Institutions

A promotion committee chair might respond to the worries I have just articulated by saying “Yes, institutional missions can vary, but our university values research, for which standardized metrics are available to help external reviewers judge fairly whether our faculty would be promoted at their equally research-oriented university”. Type and impact of peer-reviewed publications, grants garnered and scholarly awards received can indeed be compared from professor to professor and from university to university. But it doesn’t follow that faculty research success perfectly reflects whether promotion is warranted because of the varying opportunities universities offer their professors.

For example, a large, urban university affiliated with a public hospital presents faculty with scholarly challenges and opportunities distinct from those of a small, rural institution affiliated with a state agricultural extension service. More generally, wealthier universities like Stanford can facilitate professor’s research success more than can less fortunate institutions (e.g., by offering protected time for scholarship, high-tech research equipment and larger networks of accomplished colleagues in one’s area).

When I am asked to judge if a faculty member with X level of research success would be promoted at Stanford, the counterfactual hangs in my mind: If they were really at Stanford, might they have received more research opportunities and as a result succeeded at a 2X or 3X or more level? If so, isn’t it unfair to hold them to our standards when they didn’t get the resources my Stanford colleagues and I receive to support our scholarly work?

Institutional Worries About Promotion Standards Shouldn’t Be Tackled Within Individual Cases

Some people might argue that despite the fact that universities ask different things of their faculty and have differing levels of resources to help faculty achieve, it is still reasonable to ask external promotion referees whether a candidate would be promoted at the referee’s university as a check on community norms, i.e., “Tell us whether our university is holding candidates to widely-accepted promotion standards”.

I don’t buy it.

If a university’s leadership feels that its expectations of faculty are fundamentally wrong-headed or out of step with national trends, that’s certainly a problem worth engaging. But the appropriate place to engage it is absolutely not within the context of promotion decisions about individual faculty who were told when they were hired to meet their own university’s standards rather than someone else’s. If a university is articulating the wrong standards or not providing the resources required to meet them, that’s not the fault of any individual professor, it’s a systemic challenge the administration must take on.

In the meantime, I hope promotion committees will stop asking referees about whether their faculty deserve promotion somewhere else and just worry about whether they deserve promotion where they actually work.

Professor Ferguson, There’s This Thing Called “Google”….

Niall Ferguson, May 4th:

My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.

Niall Ferguson, May 7th:

Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.

Do the math

Republicans had a rough weekend for two main reasons. First, their numbers don’t add up. Second, most Americans disagree with Republican proposals, once the details are presented.

It was a rough weekend for the Republican presidential ticket….

Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney were battered yesterday on the usually pretty-soft Sunday talk shows. How rough was it? As I worked out at the gym this morning, I watched Donald Trump lambaste NBC’s painfully moderate David Gregory as a virtually paid advocate for President Obama. Across the bottom was the headline: “Do the math.”

Romney and Ryan’s real problem was that they hadn’t done the math themselves, or at least they hadn’t shown their work.

Republicans had a rough weekend for two main reasons. First, their numbers don’t add up. Second, most Americans disagree with Republican proposals to convert Medicare into a premium-support program or to cut taxes on the most affluent. So Republicans propose trillion-dollar changes to American taxation and social insurance, and they hope to run out the clock to November 6 without providing the critical supporting details. It’s not working.

More here.

Do Law Schools Discriminate Against Conservatives?

Teresa R. Wagner, a conservative Republican who applied for a faculty job at Iowa and was turned down, thinks so:

Ms. Wagner, who graduated from the law school in 1993 and had taught at the George Mason University School of Law, was not hired. She sued, alleging discrimination because of her political beliefs. Late last month, a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled that her case should go to trial, saying she had presented enough evidence to suggest that “Dean Jones’s repeated decisions not to hire Wagner were in part motivated by Wagner’s constitutionally protected First Amendment rights of political belief and association.”

I have no information other than the Times piece about the Iowa case.  It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if there was a non-trivial amount of ideological discrimination occurring in law school hiring around the country – even though it takes a very different form than that alleged by Wagner, viz. direct, intentional reluctance to hire because of ideology.

Just about any piece of scholarly work — and particularly legal scholarship — relies upon assumptions about the way the world works.  It’s unavoidable: you can’t reinvent the wheel in every piece.  But if the majority of people in a department have certain background assumptions, a candidate whose work carries different assumptions will be seen as having significant gaps and flaws.  A candidate whose work contains the same assumptions will not fall victim to such assumptions, because those assumptions will seem simply like “common sense” or at least “reasonable.”  This is why faculties tend to reproduce themselves, even if there is nothing conscious occurring.

In contemporary environmental law, an area where I do a lot of writing and teaching, the problem might be worse because Movement Conservatism has so totally gone off the rails when it comes to environmental issues.  The problem is that in environmental law, if you are a conservative with an actual goal of influencing policy, you might have to say things that are quite inane.  You might have to endorse Congressional efforts to block “farm dust” regulation.  Or to get rid of energy-saving light bulbs.  Or deny anthropogenic climate change.  But if you do that, it will be hard to get hired at any law school worth its salt.  Those law schools will “discriminate” against conservatives, but that would be discrimination simply based upon a scholarly record.  No one who denies anthropogenic climate change would or should get a faculty position.

Well, what if you don’t seek to be a Washington insider?  The problem is that what now passes for the ” mainstream conservative” environmental position ranges from neglect to abuse.  So if you advocate positions that a few years ago would have been thought of as Republican environmental positions — say, cap-and-trade, or even a carbon tax — you still run the risk of not being thought of as a conservative, because those positions no longer are considered conservative.  Rock-ribbed conservative South Carolina Congressmember Bob Inglis advocated a revenue-netural carbon tax, and lost his primary by more than 40 points.  David Frum favors a carbon tax, and has been written out of the movement.  Put another way, conservative environmental scholars have to deal with discrimination as much as from their supposed ideological allies as by the “liberal establishment.”

Can a conservative environmental scholar avoid embracing the anti-environmental stance of Movement Conservatism and still maintain his or her standing in the Movement?  Yes; some do.  But it is a difficult balancing act.  It’s hard enough to be a productive scholar without also having to look over your shoulder — or, given what I have said above about assumptions, over both shoulders.  It’s little wonder that, under these circumstances, there are fewer conservative environmental law scholars than I would like.

As I see it, we have three choices: 1) affirmative action for conservatives, which might counteract the problem of assumptions; 2) a return to sanity within Movement Conservatism; or 3) maintenance of the status quo.  The first would be, shall we say, ironic, and unlikely given conservatives’ supposed hatred of preferences.  The second would be the best solution, but is unlikely in the foreseeable future.  So the status quo it is.  Which in some ways is the most “conservative” result of all.

Government by other means; more on FSU/Koch

My post on Florida State’s sellout to a right-wing foundation deserves some more general, and less snarky, reflection on several aspects of the deal.

Donor Influence

A distinctive, possibly unique, feature of the way Americans do our collective business, noted by de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago and long predating the tax preferences for charities and donors that many think ’causes’ it, is our delegation of what others do through government to the large and ramified non-profit sector.  As Feld, Schuster and I discussed in the context of the arts [Patrons Despite Themselves, 1983 NYU Press], this system has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it diffuses control of programs and practices relative to a centralized government agency, encourages niche and “small-market” activity, and protects us from a lot of mischief.  On the other, it gives wealthy donors more influence than they would have as voters, influence amplified by the income tax deduction that makes giving cheaper per dollar as one’s tax bracket is higher.

Charitable institutions with ethical or professional claims can always refuse gifts with inappropriate strings, but this power is at least partly illusory.  The director of the Metropolitan Opera told us flatly that donors are not allowed to determine programming, and ten minutes later that the new production selected for the next season from several options was thus because it had a donor willing to fund it and the others didn’t. It’s naïve to think an institution doesn’t think about what sort of behavior might induce an “unrestricted” gift later, so this influence can be quite tacit.  For explicit restrictions, institutions have codes of ethics and rules that make it easier to stand up to donors who wants to muscle them. For example, museums are not supposed to accept artworks with conditions that they be displayed, or how (though this is violated, sometimes spectacularly, for very big gifts).  The powers that be at FSU might have viewed the Koch offer as something that would be implemented elsewhere if not there, and maybe with worse oversight and outcomes, so what’s the harm in getting it under the salutary regime of our own shop?

With all its faults, I do not think this philanthropic tradition is more dangerous or less effective than an all-government system (though I would much prefer a tax credit to the deduction).  The policy challenge is not to avoid risk but to choose the right risks, and then to manage them, which is what FSU spectacularly failed at.

Program focus and program results

Governments and individuals want universities to do some things and not others.  The land grant system was specifically designed to get brainpower directed to useful stuff like better agriculture and engineering; RISD and Mass Art were founded to help the textile industry make money with better fabric designs.  It was our sister campus at Davis that put cheap good wine on your table and cleared away the cobwebs of myth and superstition from that industry, whose devotion to better uses of bioethanol (than driving cars) is itself admirable in my book.  I have no problem with any of this; private or public, universities are given resources that could be used in other ways, and we have a duty to create value for the society, not to amuse ourselves. Yes, what looks like woolgathering and methodological navel-gazing is part of creating that value; those art schools were given painting and sculpture departments because the founders understood that the arts were integrated and cross-fertilizing.

The (somewhat fuzzy) line here is between directing academic attention to an issue area (how markets work and don’t, how to make wine, what might live on Mars) and directing findings about those things.  If the Davis oenologists had been offered a gift conditional on showing that acquired characteristics of vines were inherited (what put Russian science in the toilet for a generation), or on hiring faculty who would teach that wine prevents heart attacks, they would have had none of it, and correctly so.  We are always at risk of having our institutions corrupted to give someone a short-term benefit (even with the best intentions on all sides), but More’s caution to his careerist apprentice (at least in the movie) – about cutting down the laws when convenient and then having nothing to hide behind when the devil comes for you – applies in spades to science, including social science, and everything else in the academic grove.  (Actually, I think playing by the rules for their own sake  in the small because it pays off in the large applies to the sports subsidiary as well.)  FSU crossed that line in football four years ago, and in economics in 2008; maybe the campus culture is generally that cheating is OK if you win?  That anything that can be bought and sold should be? If a student ghostwrites a term paper for another for $100, can he defend himself by pointing to his economics prof?


No, it’s not OK if it makes money;  universities could diffuse their management attention and resources, and spend their reputation, across all sorts of things that would be profitable, but a lot of them are inappropriate and a lot of them are mischievous and dangerous.  Selling course content or research findings is one of those, and high up on the list.  What FSU did besmirches the reputation of everything its faculty does from now on, in the classroom and in the lab, and because of the tacit anticipation issue noted in my first heading, properly so.  Most troubling to me is that this scheme constitutes nearly flat-out lying to the citizens of Florida.  If they are anything like California citizens, they are desperate to believe that they can have (for example) a fine university system without actually having to pay anything for it, and letting Koch (or anyone else) infect it this way enables that tragic wrong belief.  What they will have on this plan is something completely different from a university, dressed up in a nice gown and mortarboard.  We have an (imperfect, granted) accreditation system to help people distinguish a real university from that sort of thing and I think FSU deserves its attention.

The Florida way

Florida State is among the victims of a savage budget attack from the state government; in their case $100m in the last four years. The football team is doing fine and making money, so there’s no real crisis at hand.  But a university is a large and complicated enterprise, with dozens of specialized activities affecting narrow interest groups, and two of these – research and teaching – are feeling some real hurt. If they get in serious trouble, it might reflect badly on the team, maybe even tap its revenues a bit, and that would be a real shame.

The economics department, though, is thinking outside the boxes of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry, perhaps a light for other departments, and has sold the right to choose faculty to the Charles Koch Foundation, ensuring Koch the freedom of a direct line into the heads of students in at least eight courses.  Over at the National Review, a veto over hiring has a softer, fuzzier feel: “some input”, they call it. Like what a DS offers his Marine recruits. When they ask.  What’s most amazing about the story is the dean, a David W. Rasmussen,  doubling down deadpan on the rightness of the deal, perhaps not surprising as a bank has already paid FSU to teach a course pitching Ayn Rand’s views; you have to read the story to get the whole sordid picture.  What’s second most amazing is how cheap FSU sold out: $1.5m over six years, apparently revocable if the foundation doesn’t like anything any economics prof says.

Again; no need to panic yet, as the Seminoles are set to have another great year on the gridiron.  But if you read anything by an FSU prof, you might want to keep in mind that if the school still has the Koch money, the article passed a Koch political test. Especially a junior prof, as it might be awkward at tenure time if calling them like you saw them cost the school a million and a half dollars.

Prop. 19: Holder says no

The feds won’t acquiesce in legalizing non-medical commercial cannabis production and sale.

Unsurprisingly, Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that the Federal government would not acquiesce if California decided to legalize recreational cannabis, as provided for in Proposition 19.

Some reporters are treating this as inconsistent with Holder’s earlier decision not to bother California’s “medical marijuana” industry, but that’s an error. No matter how transparent the fig-leaf of medical use covering the nakedness of the billion-dollar industry, medical use is exempted from the international drug treaties and the regulation of medical practice (as opposed to the approval of pharmaceuticals) has long been a state, rather than a federal, preserve. Just as important, “medical” cannabis sells at more or less full dope-dealer prices, while if Prop. 19 were allowed to take effect without Federal interference the retail price of high-grade weed would (according to RAND) be about $40 an ounce, more than an 80% discount compared to the current $300. At that price, California cannabis would flood the nation.

It wasn’t hard to figure out that the feds weren’t going to hold still for that.

But what does Holder’s annoucement mean in practice?
Continue reading “Prop. 19: Holder says no”

Toward a general theory of academic b.s.

A successful academic career requires publishing more papers than anyone has important, valid, and new ideas. It greatly helps to own a paper-generating machine. That creates an environmental niche for tendencies of thought that enable the formulaic production of papers not incorporating significant new thought.

We all know of academic disciplines dominated by bullsh*t, or, short of that bullsh*t-peddling “schools” and “tendencies” that contend for power even if they can’t make a whole field go to hell.  Giving examples would be superfluous, and moreover could get me in trouble, so think of them for yourself.

Since I can’t imagine anything to do about the problem – peer review, which is supposed to filter out bullsh*t, is equally effective at filtering out criticism of bullsh*t – let me theorize about it instead.  I want to claim that, just as the process of natural selection operating on religions tends to select for those that encourage excessive procreation, proselytization, and persecution, natural selection operating on “schools of thought” gives the bullsh*t-producing ones certain competitive advantages, only partly offset by the worthlessness of the product.

1.  One measure of success as a professor, and one source of reputation, is the production of successful students, where success is defined as jobs, and eventually tenure, at good places.

2.  Jobs and tenure are produced by publications.

3.  Saying something new, important, and true is hard. Most people aren’t up to doing it very often.  Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crap”) cannot be repealed.

4.  Therefore, success requires publishing papers that are not new, important, and true, that embody either pure b.s. or Kuhnian “normal science”:  that is, solving minor puzzles according to a given paradigm without challenging the paradigm.

5.  Therefore, in order to achieve a place within academia, a style of work and thought needs to enable the production of un-interesting papers. Those papers need to be distinguishable as “better” or “worse” by those in the in-group, so they can pretend – to others and to themselves - to maintain standards and reward excellence, but it must be possible to crank those papers out more or less mechanically without any risk of producing a a “wrong” result. Ideally, the papers should be written in some incomprehensible language (using either lots of non-standard words or lots of double integral signs and Greek letters) to conceal their vacuity from outsiders.

6. Str**sians, r*tion*l-ch**ce political scientists, r*t**nal-exp*ctations macroeconomists, F**c**ldians, L*c*nians, d*c*nstr*ction*sts, ec*n*metr*cians, and practitioners of “critical” anything have formulas that allow mediocre minds to produce arbitrarily large numbers of papers, and other mediocre minds to sort them out as journal referees. That gives their practitioners an edge when it comes to publishing. And the custom of citing one another gives them a further edge when it comes to citations.

Now I don’t think there’s a formula for producing bullsh*t formulas. Usually, at the root of any of these “schools” resides some great insight, often the product of a single great mind, whose prestige can be borrowed by his followers. William Riker, for example, seems to have been utterly incapable of examining any political phenomenon without creating a brilliant insight. But if he really believed that he was practicing a “method” that others could usefully copy, he was deluded.

I doubt there’s a way out of this social trap, as long as hiring and tenure committees keep counting publications and citations rather than new ideas.

Firing John Yoo: a comment

Firing John Yoo – the vocational distinction

I mostly agree with Mark on this. But he underplays the relevant fact that unlike him Professor Yoo is employed to teach a vocational subject, law. This isn’t a prestige issue. Particle physics, cultural studies and remedial English fall on one side of the vocational/non-vocational distinction; law, medicine, nursing, flying training and plumbing school on the other.

All teaching carries with it a minimum set of professional standards on plagiarism, harassment, favouritism and so on. Nobody has suggested John Yoo has violated these. But vocational education should also inculcate the specific ethical standards of the trade in question. It seems at least arguable that Yoo’s probable professional misconduct as legal enabler of war crimes taints his ability to train future advocates and judges. Should a flying school for airline pilots keep an instructor guilty of reckless flying in his own weekend plane? But the same conduct would be irrelevant to the employment of a professor of surgery.

I know I’m advocating a double standard here, but with reasons. Mark could apologise for torture instead of valiantly protesting it and keep his job; Alan Dershowitz has done so. And Mark is right that to avoid double jeopardy the disciplinary action should await resolution of the criminal one, or at least indictment. Nelson’s navy could have suspended Yoo on half pay. Mao’s China would have subjected him to humiliating sessions of self-criticism. Failing these, a boycott looks about right.

Math is hard

Two dispatches this week from the “is our girls and women learning?” wars. Elizabeth Weil writes about the nascent movement for single-sex education in public schools, and Christina Hoff Sommers takes on efforts to socially engineer the equal representation of women in science and engineering PhD programs. (Charlotte Allen’s “Women are dumb” doesn’t make the cut.)

These arguments over the influences of innate cognitive differences (in the mean and in variability), socialization, hostile environments, and self-selection don’t seem to be going anywhere. Sommers has moved on from the crisis in boys’ learning to the crisis in men’s—women now earn the majority of PhDs, so academia must be hostile to men. Except in math, science, and engineering. And activists are now using Title IX to redress this last injustice.

Continue reading “Math is hard”