Cowardice in Academia

An important prelude to what’s below:  all three of my academic units are wonderful places, with terrific colleagues and students.  In part, after some thought and discussions with a few colleagues from other universities, that’s why I’m sharing what’s below: because if what I address can occur in places this good (and it really is that good), it must go on everywhere.  Which is damn sad and completely inexcusable.  So I’m posting this as an “open letter” of sorts, in hopes of catalyzing discussions of the issue elsewhere, wherever they may be needed. 

This fall, my three academic units will, as usual, handle several personnel cases.  Some are the first step in most tenure-track jobs (the “halfway to tenure” review, or comprehensive review as it’s called at CU), some are tenure decisions, some are promotions to full professor, some are instructor reappointments.  These personnel decisions – along with the step that precedes them all (hiring) – are among the most important tasks a faculty and university must take on.  And sometimes they’re very hard, especially when friends and colleagues don’t meet the bar and a negative judgement is rendered.  Unless you’re a cold-blooded SOB, that’s a lousy day for everyone (though worst of all for the recipient obviously).

The inevitable human connections to personnel cases makes it critically important that they be handled with utmost professionalism and humanity.  Grudges, dislikes and personal agendas should never enter the equation. Most adhere to that standard.  But some don’t.  And in one of my units ( I will not name which one), there is an unfortunate, multi-decade history of some flat out cowardly behavior when it comes to personnel decisions.  I explain more in a slightly edited version of an email I sent this unit recently, found below.

A broader bottom line?  There is much I love about academia, including its freedom, its job security post-tenure, and its commitment to democracy at least in many parts of the operation.  But within that structure lies inevitable downsides (as we all know).  The one I dislike the most is the ability for people to negatively influence the lives and psyche of others anonymously – and most often it’s those with tenure doing so to those without job security (graduate students, instructors, pre-tenure faculty, etc).  It is happily a tiny minority where I work, and hopefully everywhere, but it is still an abysmal trait that is suffused with cowardice and a lack of humanity.

And it is a reason why I believe our personnel votes and actions should not be anonymous, at least for anyone who has passed tenure. Yes, having those be public could make for some hard conversations and awkward moments.  But if you can’t stand behind your own opinion publicly with the job security of tenure – especially when it comes to judging those who do not have that job security – you really are a coward.

Here is the email.  I’m sure it made me a few enemies, and posting it here may bring more.  But I don’t much care as I find the behavior inexcusable, and I want those of you still climbing the ladder to know:  most of us in academia do approach personnel reviews with complete professionalism and a healthy dose of humanity.   Where we fail, at times, is by not holding those who don’t accountable.

Dear Colleagues:

As those of you present in a recent meeting know, I objected to a pattern I have seen here for my entire 17 years at CU, and which other colleagues tell me has gone on for nearly 40 years.  Namely, the willingness of some people to vote no on personnel decisions without any defense of that position, in cases where the file is strong and the discussion is uniformly positive.  That happened recently, and it has happened multiple times in the past.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, it happened in one of my early reviews.)

I am writing because I want my opinion on the record, I want to expand on some of what I said, and I want all of us to be in the loop.  As I stated in person, I am appalled when I see “no” votes emerge from a completely positive discussion.  I am appalled because it shirks our professional responsibilities and is incredibly unfair to the person under review.  Below, I will explain this view more fully.

Evaluation of our peers is one of the hardest and yet most important tasks we must do as a faculty.  It is also a task that is inevitably personal because these are our colleagues and friends, but that makes it all the more important that decisions are made on professional terms only, and adhere to the standards for reappointment and promotion that are clearly defined.  At times, gut-wrenching decisions must be made, in which people we genuinely appreciate and like have not met those standards, and when that is the case, our responsibility is to say so via our discussions and vote.  However, in all cases we owe it to our colleagues to be honest and thorough in communicating the basis of any personnel decision.  If it’s uniformly positive, that’s easy and fun.  When it’s not all positive, it’s neither easy or fun, but the person in question should know why given decisions were reached.  Not only is there no other way for them to use any criticism constructively, it’s simply the right thing to do on basic human terms.

What I’ve seen over the years, however, is two forms of silence on negative votes.  One is somewhat understandable and partially defensible, the other is not.  The first category contains instances in which a file has notable concerns based on the metrics the department and university use for evaluation.  I.e., either it’s a tough call, or even a case that is obviously not going to meet the bar.  Here, invariably at least some people will voice the negatives that are evident in the file, so while others may vote no and say nothing, the discussion DOES reflect the ultimate vote, and the chair and/or evaluation committee members can convey back to the candidate what led to negative outcomes.  That’s hard, but mostly fair.

Sadly, it’s the other category that’s been more common.  This category is when there is no defense for a negative vote based on the contents of the dossier and the standards we are supposed to use in reaching a decision.  Yes, everyone will have their own lens on a dossier (and should), but there are plenty of cases in which a no vote is unquestionably not appropriate based on the dossier.  It’s not a matter of debate or opinion in those instances:  the candidate has met or exceeded the standards, that can be proven quantitatively, and thus a yes vote is the only option based on the job terms defined for that person and for this university.

In my 17 years here, we’ve had a hell of a good group in which the large majority of cases have been just that: no conversation needed other than to celebrate the achievements of our colleagues.  But in several of those cases, the conversation WAS a celebration, but the vote was not.

This is what I find appalling and indefensible.  It would be so at any review stage, but is perhaps most problematic for comprehensive review cases because the entire point of that process is to make sure a candidate gets the feedback they need about progress towards tenure, and to communicate to the candidate what might not be on track.  That’s why comprehensive review was put in place.  So to vote no in one of those cases, but not provide feedback to go with that vote, is both cowardly and a shirking of our faculty responsibilities.  And of course, to vote no in any case where the metrics do not support that vote is also professionally unacceptable.  In those cases, the person under review can’t help but interpret the no vote as a personal grudge instead of one professionally rendered.

The only wiggle room here is if someone is aware of a negative issue that might not be apparent in the dossier but that truly merits consideration.  Those will be very rare instances.  But even then, the issue must be voiced to be professional and fair.  It’s understandable that some faculty members might not be comfortable voicing such an issue, but we have ways around that constraint.  All one has to do is approach the chair or another representative in advance and ask that the issue be raised for discussion without attribution to any specific person.  This can be done anonymously if need be, internally or via university channels that are specifically set up to make sure information can be shared without fear of retribution.  

In other words, there is no excuse for a vote not to reflect the discussion.

After I voiced my opinion this morning, the point was raised about our unit having an unfortunate history of personnel discussions not remaining confidential.  This is a fair point and an important one.  It is our responsibility – all of us – to recognize that breaking confidentiality is damaging to our colleagues and to the department as a whole.  Where a negative discussion is appropriate and needed, it’s essential to maintain confidentiality so that everyone feels comfortable in raising points that must be discussed.  Everyone.

However, we cannot let our collective inability to keep things confidential in the past penalize our current and future junior faculty as they come up for consideration.  Yes, we should all take confidentiality seriously and do better.  But independent of this issue, we must do better about having our personnel discussions be both fair and human by making sure that the faculty discussion reflects the final vote.

A final, very important point, directed in particular towards the junior faculty.  The above issue obviously concerns me, but compared to the full sweep of academia, we are all incredibly fortunate to be in this unit and at this university.   Minor exceptions occur, but I’ve found this university to be a remarkably supportive and fair professional environment. This is reflected even in my comfort at sharing an opinion I know will ruffle some feathers.

Thank you all for enduring a long email, and best wishes.


4 thoughts on “Cowardice in Academia

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  3. hjahren1

    This is a really important letter that you sent to your colleagues. Incredibly important. I am awed that you were willing to write this all out and put it in people’s faces. No words, really. It’s very late where I am and I should have turned in a while ago. Feels great to know you are working with so much courage and integrity to confront the tough stuff. Be sure to let us peek in on the follow up, can’t wait to hear about various reactions.


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