I’m with Brad DeLong: John Tierney’s column on cronyism and academia is an especially annoying case of the lack-of-pluralism-in-academia argument. It is a lazy conflation of two completely different issues. I’m perfectly willing to agree that there is a problem with a lack of intellectual pluralism in many parts of the academy, but for reasons which have nothing to do with the concept of cronyism that’s being applied to the Miers nomination.

In fact, the situation in academia is often almost the opposite. A distant relation of mine had worked in the past in the Swarthmore administration before I got hired here: we’ve joked occasionally since that it’s a damn good thing he didn’t know I was up for the job until I got it and that no one knew of the relationship. Trading on connections in most academic institutions, at least since the mid-1970s, is done with extreme delicacy if at all. Your advisor or pedigree or influential patrons may help you find a job in some contexts, but only if their influence is exerted with extreme passivity and indirection. They may equally hurt you: I can think of some important patrons in some disciplines whose students have sometimes suffered the brunt of professional jealousy directed at their teachers while on the job market. If administrations at universities or colleges try to intervene in hiring processes directly, they often end up causing faculty to move in the opposite direction just to spite the administration.

Groupthink and insularity in academia mostly don’t come from cronyism or nepotism, from anti-meritocratic promotions designed to reward personal loyalty to a powerful figure. When that sort of thing does happen within a single institution, it tends to spawn enormous ill-will and backlash, and it tends to be connected to the kinds of total failures of leadership of the sort exhibited by John Silber at Boston University.

Academic insularity comes from collective institutions and passive-aggressive models of distributed enforcement of the sort exemplified in tenure decisions. There’s been a lot of talk about tenure in the last week among bloggers due to Daniel Drezner’s denial of tenure. I thought Sean McCann’s comments on the case were among the best I’d seen. In particular, Sean captured my own dual reaction: dismay at the decision, a creeping sense that it connected to what I see as some of the underlying problems with academia’s overspecialization and insularity, but also irritation with some of the rather Tierney-like pronouncements about the decision, which often demonstrated little knowledge of academic institutions and their internal governance.

As long as tenure exists, for example, it’s never going to be easy to exercise it with any selectivity. The number of people who make it through the numbing process of graduate school who are blatantly unqualified to be scholars or ignorant are perishingly small. If that’s all that you eliminated in granting lifetime employment, you’d have to abandon any sense that tenure ought to be about a serious appraisal of scholarly potential and teaching ability. Many smart academics could potentially write a blog rather like Dan Drezner’s: it is not what he writes per se in his blog that is an indication of his distinctive quality as an intellectual, but that he wrote it in a situation where it was potentially career-threatening to do so, and certainly not career-enhancing. That indicates a clarity of commitment to the public character of scholarly work and to the communicative ability that is one of the foundations of good teaching.

But institutions have their own cultures, too, which is what perhaps the non-academic readers can’t or don’t perceive. What gets you tenure at Harvard is not what gets you tenure at Swarthmore which is not what gets you tenure at the University of Alabama. Perhaps that is not as it should be: I’ve said many times that I think Harvard’s approach is devastatingly self-destructive, and that goes for Chicago as well. What one is complaining about, however, in attacking the way tenure works within these specific institutional cultures and across academia as a whole is not something like cronyism. It’s about administrative structures like departments, about the premium that the organization of academic places on inward-turning specialization, about modes of achievement that often rest on bygone publishing regimes and practices of readership which have no more than a decade’s worth of life left to them. It’s also about peculiarly local cultures of institutional life that really need to be appreciated in their own terms before understanding how and why they’re misfiring in the way that they sometimes do.

There is a lot wrong with this whole way of running the railroad, but tenure is really only a symptom of that deeper disorder. In fact, abolishing tenure would not, as Sean McCann notes, really improve things. Any departmentalized, specialized, decentralized academic institution would shoot itself in the foot just as effectively with multiyear contracts as lifetime tenure, only more often and with greater chaos. Any highly centralized, bureaucratized, top-down controlled campus would have opposite but equally bad problems, becoming more like the immobile and unproductive institutions that dot the landscape in Western Europe.

The problem in a way is that American universities and colleges don’t, can’t, think in any centralized way about what allows them to function well, what maximizes their internal productivity and generativity.

Some of it is the result of very deep-seated internal contradictions about what kinds of productivity is meant: productivity of knowledge, of engagement with the world, of numbers of “student units” churned out, of reputation?

More of the problem is that the consumers of higher education and its products (whether students, employers or the public sphere) don’t really know how to evaluate the relationship between external reputation and internal process (something that some of the discussion of Drezner’s case illustrates). They don’t know what goes on inside a university, or what it is that faculty do.

Take my day today. It’s fall break here. I worked on a book chapter on my book about Zimbabwe and chiefship this morning. I did a quick-edit of an article for an online journal in games studies after that. I replied to a lot of email. I talked to a reporter. I worked on this blog entry. I answered a survey on using digital images in the classroom. I prepared some material for use in courses next week. I read some of the texts I’m teaching from next week. I tried to arrange a lunch for a visiting colleague who is coming to give a talk on Monday. I began to prepare my book orders for next semester. I looked over a report on a recent conference that’s going to quote some of what I said in emails and thought about how to edit down what I’d said informally so the insulting stuff stayed off the record. I did some planning for a visit from a speaker on Monday Oct. 24th that turns out to have a hidden logistical problem. I worked a bit on a proposed “decision rule” for a planning committee on I’m on. I talked with a friend about a workshop on fieldwork that we’ve organized in New York City tomorrow, and how we want to substantively organize the discussion. I read some of the material he circulated for the workshop. I did a bit of thinking about a presentation I did earlier in the week for an alumni reading group and some substantive questions to circulate in early November when the reading groups begin meeting actively.

That’s a pretty busy day, partially because I’m using my break to catch up on some of that stuff, but it’s reasonably typical of the balls I’m juggling in the air most semesters. It is a typical example of how contemporary academics are producing knowledge, teaching and acting as administrators all at once. Some colleagues do as much or more than I do; some do less. It is so at most universities and colleges. But I don’t think outsiders have any sense of that work process, and they certainly don’t evaluate academic institutions on whether or how any of that is getting done, or getting done well. Because they don’t, because the reputation of academic institutions is mostly not especially dependent on what faculty actually do or don’t do, academics themselves don’t have to think carefully about any of this when they think about tenure or hiring or promotion or training of graduate students. A business thinks (or should) about who is a “value-added” employee; academia instead mystfies and obscures its own work processes, works its reputation capital in ways that often don’t come back to the actual engines of productivity, and reproduces itself in ways that often maximize insularity and dysfunction rather than make an effective connection between institutional generativity and social capital in the world at large. There are no reputational consequences in many cases for institutions which suffer badly from internal disorder or poor institutional productivity, and few reputational benefits from the opposite. That also goes for individual faculty. Dan Drezner’s blog is a “value-added” asset for the University of Chicago (or was until he was denied tenure) but most of us know, including Dan, that it was never likely to be accredited as such.

Complain about that if you like: I will endorse your complaint. Suggest it may be an issue in Drezner’s case, or many other cases, and you may be correct. But whatever it is, it’s not cronyism. That’s somebody else’s problem, somebody else’s failure, and it is the height of anti-intellectual laziness to trot out and try to blame the eggheads for that, too, on top of all the things that they already have a problem with.

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5 Responses to Tenure

  1. dkane says:

    With regard to the issue of cronyism in academia, how many faculty members at Swarthmore are married to other faculty members? At what rate to untenured faculty members married to tenured faculty members get tenure and is it the same as the average rate? How many spouses of tenured faculty members work for Swarthmore?

    I don’t know the answers, but I suspect that Swarthmore, like all large organizations, looks out for its own. I don’t consider this a problem necessarily, but it surely is a type of cronyism.

    At Williams, at least, there are many faculty members married to other faculty members and staff. The results are not always pretty.

  2. dkane says:

    This is off-topic, but you mention an “alumni reading group” in the above. What is this? I would be very interested to know about this group, where it came from, how it is organized, what you hope to do with it and so on. I have tried to do something along these lines at Williams, but gotten very little help from the powers that be.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The reading group is something our alumni have done on their own, with assistance from the Alumni Office. Faculty here have pitched in each year when asked; this year is my turn.

    Spousal hiring is a pretty deep and complex issue in its own right, and tends to raise ambivalent feelings. On one hand, it seems a good response to the problems that academic couples face in coordinating their careers, when one spouse has been hired and his/her institution is happy with that person. Especially in a more remote place like Williams. On the other, as you note, it may raise questions about whether standards are the same for both people. Without getting into specific cases, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t always worked to the advantage of people in that situation here–that at the least, both partners are evaluated separately and distinctively. Which I think means whatever its advantages and disadvantages, it’s not, as you say, cronyism.

  4. Doug says:

    Thanks for this post; when I read Dan’s news, I was hoping that you would have something to say about it because I figured it would be worth reading.

    One analogy that occurred to me in thinking about being denied tenure is that it is like not being made partner at a law firm. There’s a professional qualification, a lengthy journeyman stage, and an intransparent process resulting in a lifetime offer (or not) at the end. As you point out, there’s a general model with lots of local variation; law firms quite clearly have their cultures as universities do.

    But for Dan in particular, and for people on the tenure track in general, there’s an important difference: A lawyer who doesn’t make partner can hang out his or her own shingle. (Likewise doctors and investment professionals, whose career trajectories are broadly similar.) Political scientists generally can’t. Why not? Or more to the point, what would have to happen to make that option more available?

    I’m reading, at time permits, your sketch of a 21st century college, and I think there might be a connection, but the dough has not risen enough on those ideas to even call them half-baked, so I’ll just posit a connection. (Tangentially, in the sketch have you given much thought to skills that are use-them-or-lose them? I’m thinking in particular of foreign languages and mathematics. I remember that doing a semester of statistics between calculus and multi-dimensional calculus really set me back; I was simply out of practice. That seems to me a danger of the first-year program you’ve sketched. There are skills that students will have coming out of high school that college hones, and if they are left unused for a year then a real dead-weight loss will follow.)

  5. Alan Jacobs says:

    “Dan Drezner’s blog is a ‘value-added’ asset for the University of Chicago (or was until he was denied tenure) but most of us know, including Dan, that it was never likely to be accredited as such.” I agree with both points: it was (is) an asset, and it was (is) not likely to be recognized as such.

    But why was it not likely to be recognized? I think the answer that will spring to the lips — or rather to the fingers — of people like us, habituates of the blogosphere, is that there are too many Ivan Tribbles around for a fine, intellectually serious blog like Drezner’s to be taken seriously by a high-level institution. And that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. We also need to recognize that the *architecture* (as Larry Lessig would put it) of blogs is far better suited to the dissemination of news than the pursuit of intellectually serious questions. The standard blog format — newest posts on top, comments (if there are any) visible only when you click on the permalink, uncertain or nonexistent means of citation — makes it easy for people to scan the recent entries and then move on. An extra effort is required to see the actual conversation. A far greater effort is necessary to pursue conversations that are more than a day or two old.

    Of course all of these problems can be overcome, and there are various technologies out there that address some of them — for instance, the ability on many sites (like this one) to subscribe via RSS to comments — but they are imperfectly and infrequently implemented. What we need is for fans of the blogosphere — people who know that conversations on certain blogs are far more valuable than the ones we’re likely to have at the faculty club or at a conference — to realize that the architecture is deficient, and to press for remedies. The Ivan Tribbles of the world may be uneducable, but there are a lot of people out there whose suspicions about the value of blogs are not fixed, and could be assuaged if intellectual/academic websites employed an architecture that was more amenable to sustained, intellectually serious debate, based on claims substantiated with real evidence (as appropriate for the topic, and linkable when possible).

    With some architectural changes, blogs could come to be recognized as real contributions to the scholarly conversation; at the very least they could cease to be potentially damaging, at least insofar as they are blogs. You could never stop people from using such a venue in order to shoot themselves in the foot; but maybe serious and thoughtful people like Drezner wouldn’t have the very fact of their writing blogs held against them.

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