Monday, 15 November 2010

File Time : The Data

The topic of yesterday and today is: How much time do promotion & tenure committees (at the level above the department) spend on each case?

Typically, the committee members spend time reading files before the committee meeting(s). This can take from 1 to a few hours, according to my experience and those of some of the commenters from yesterday.

Some of the range in time spent discussing each case in committee meetings is accounted for by different expectations for what the P&T committee produces: just a vote, or also a document. One thing that surprised me when I started looking into this question is the wide range of time/case spent by different committees even within the same institution. For example, an institution in which a P&T committee in one unit spent hours on each case, whereas another committee spent a small fraction of that.

Time/case can be substantial, even for apparently straightforward cases. These committees should not assume that the department has done everything right and go along with either a positive or negative vote for tenure. The reason that the awarding of tenure is a multi-stage process is to have checks-and-balances. Maybe the department was not objective (either for or against the candidate). Maybe they missed something in the file (either for or against the candidate). The committee needs to examine the record in light of all the evidence in the file. Time discussing the case in a committee meeting might well be << the time spent in the first reading the file, but time/case in the committee should only be short if everyone has done their homework first.

I was also surprised because one of the fastest time/case examples I encountered was attributed not to the excellence of the candidates but to the magnitude of experience of the committee members and chair. That made me nervous. I don't think any of us, no matter how many years spent on such committees, should ever get to the point of believing that we can tell at a glance whether someone should get or not get tenure. At some point, the beneficial aspects of having a lot of experience evaluating tenure cases may be replaced by egotism and carelessness. I recently met someone who had crossed that line.

It might make tenure candidates anxious to know that some committees spend many many hours poring over every detail of their file, but from what I've seen, this attention to detail is not for the purpose of rooting out flaws, but for making sure that the decision, whatever it may be, is fair and had a solid basis in the record.

And it might make some tenure candidates anxious to know that there are committees who don't spend much time on each case. It's an anxious time, either way.

I can say, though, that from what I've seen, many P& T committees are composed of people who try to come to fair decisions through detailed reading and thoughtful discussion. That overall optimistic view was somewhat shaken by my recent conversation with someone (let's call him "Ed") from a discipline that does not involve the sciences (let's call it "Ed"), but I hope that the Eds of the academic world are rare beasts.

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