Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Confusing the left and right in Cambridge 

If you are strongly of the left or right and strictly conform to the political requirements of your wing, there is a story in Cambridge that is going to be very confusing for you. An African-American biology professor, James Sherley of MIT, is going on a hunger strike to protest MIT's decision to deny him tenure. So far, you can almost hear the left chanting about the injustice against Professor Sherley, and the right grumbling that "anybody who would go on a hunger strike over a promotion proves thereby that he lacks the judgment necessary for a guarantee of lifetime employment" (which is, in fact, my position). Then the story gets very confusing:

James Sherley, 49, is known for his controversial theories about stem cells. He works with adult stem cells and opposes research using human embryonic stem cells, saying it amounts to taking human life.

Who among our esteemed readership believes that fact is going to mute the support Dr. Sherley gets from the dogmatic left and the grumbling from the dogmatic right? And who among you thinks I'm a cynic?

In your enthusiasm to answer the questions above, do not, by the way, miss MIT's spineless public statement, a classic example of the "out of our hands" management style that so characterizes university bureaucrats:
MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay would not comment on the specific reasons Sherley was not advanced on the tenure track. But he said administrators, as part of the tenure process, sought input from experts in Sherley's field outside MIT.

"He didn't come up to the standard we expect based on those inputs from the outside," Clay said.

See, nobody at MIT thought Professor Sherley shouldn't get tenure. It was those nasssty outside experts.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Feb 06, 09:50:00 AM:

TH, you're off base on your last statement. Letters from external reviewers are normal for tenure decisions. Which isn't to say that they weren't influenced by his positions, but MIT is no different here from any other school.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Feb 06, 09:55:00 AM:

I'm not against using outside reviewers -- I ask people outside our company what they think of our employees all the time. My complaint is in the expression of it -- there is no courage in hanging your decision on some third party, as if you had no choice in whether you agreed with the third party review or not. Any boss worthy of the job should declare that he does or does not agree with any "360" evaluation that comes in. There is no courage in pretending it wasn't your decision. It is chickenshit, in my book.  

By Blogger Joe Buzz, at Tue Feb 06, 01:10:00 PM:

Yes, I think that you are a cynic. But not quite as cynical and nowhere near as pottymouthed as John Edward's favorite blogger and potential press secretary Amanda Marcotte.
BTW, I wonder what Mr. Sherley thinks about Gorebal worming...?  

By Blogger Pudentilla, at Tue Feb 06, 02:05:00 PM:

TH, I think you may be mis-describing the MIT tenure process here. The reason you get outside reviewers is that even wealthy institutions like MIT don't have 4 or 5 people who are experts on exactly the same field of research. In fact, the hiring process tends to try and not duplicate research fields so that the curriculum will cover a wide range of fields.

So schools get experts on the candidates topic to evaluate that candidate's work - the evaluation is deliberately outsourced, if you will. This has a side benefit of getting evaluations of work product that are not influenced by interactions in the work environment.

If you get good (meaning well written and helpful evaluations, whether negative or positive) you defer to them. A school like MIT isn't going to tenure someone whose work is rejected by scholars in his own field.

Thus the most fair reading of what MIT said is that while MIT favorably regarded his work as a teacher and his congeniality as a colleague, his work as a scholar, based upon independent evaluations, was sub-par, and that under their tenure standards they could not grant him tenure.

That's not irresponsibly dodging the blame for the decision (as you suggest) but accurately describing the process.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Feb 06, 03:44:00 PM:

Just to reiterate what the previous commenters have said, the Chancellor was quite accurate and fair about how the tenure process works. In fact, given the delicacy of the situation of someone announcing that they are in the process of starving themselves, possible to death, on campus, I don't really think the remarks leave that much to criticize. You have missed the mark.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Feb 06, 04:39:00 PM:

Pinko -

I don't think he'll starve himself to death... if you look at a picture of him, it's clear he has some time to go hungry before that becomes a concern.

Maybe he should just join up in the Lose Weight With Tigerhawk party!  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Feb 06, 11:20:00 PM:

Actually, I should join the hunger strike. It would be more effective.  

By Blogger Jeremiah, at Wed Feb 07, 01:44:00 AM:

Someone, and I am indebted to whoever can remind of who, said that cynicism is merely the purest expression of idealism.

I think the point was not that the tenure process in and of itself at MIT (or elsewhere) is flawed but that the liberal bias in academia can produce these kinds of counterintuitive results.

I am always amazed at how quickly and blindly academics at all levels will rush to defend their "sacred" tenure process and the nobility of their profession when confronted by obvious examples of flaws. Only the truly insecure find it necessary to defend the occasional flaw if the overall system is working well. The problem with education in the USA is that everyone is defensive, and with good reason. Perhaps "No Child Left Behind" will contribute to a situation in which the liberal education establishment will no longer have to jump to its own defense.

We can hope...  

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