Social closure mechanisms in making a tenure decision

The following points enumerate some of the ways in which a typical geoscience tenure decision-making process enables implicit or even explicit bias. Departments and universities promulgate these criteria of "merit" as if they were objective, when in fact they are very subjective and often enable bias by disguising exclusion as arguments that the candidate lacks merit. In a social-closure framework, each person who can impact an important decision like the tenure decision is termed a gatekeeper, and gatekeepers need to a) Understand when bias is being enacted in decisions, so they can intervene and articulate counter-arguments, and b) Change each institutional gatekeeping process so that the process itself resists bias.

A.      There are a set of more-or-less formal requirements for hiring and/or tenure, including things like previous education, number of papers, grants, teaching history, and more. The papers of Susan Fiske show how our in-group socialization influences our judgment: If a white male and any Other person make the same mistake, the white male’s error will tend to be seen as a minor slip-up and quickly forgotten (if it is even noticed), while the Other person’s error will be strongly noticed and remembered as evidence of incompetence. How do we institute this sort of knowledge of human social conditioning into the University so all are aware of these disparities in scrutiny when making hiring and promotion decisions? For a candidate who is a woman or person of color, we will take these formal requirements and scrutinize them, exaggerate irregularities, and mention/attack all possible weaknesses. The requirements that would be approximately quantitative (for a white male) become much more qualitative (all this will happen with protestations of color-blindness from white males):

a.      Arguments sometimes go all the way back to someone's previous education: Was their PhD “rigorous” and from a “strong department?”

b.      How long did it take them to get their PhD? Were there any gaps? Were they perhaps too long in a postdoc? How about delays in the tenure clock due to parenthood or illness? Like lawyers, faculty members will sometimes seem to build a case that the candidate is intrinsically guilty even before consideration of the particulars of this case under deliberation.

c.       Is their expertise in a traditional field or an emerging field? (Matthew, 2016a, p. xii). A chief benefit of diversity is to push the field creatively in new, emerging directions. However, the "legitimation narrative" that a department or discipline uses to set itself apart and justify its existence tends to be very traditional and relies on victories from the past. Thus, candidates who bring diversity are the hardest to justify using the standard legitimation arguments of the discipline. In fact, the standard arguments are used against them (Dotson, 2012).

d.      Are they working in the central components of the discipline or near the periphery? Is it still geoscience if a researcher ventures into the social aspects of the geosciences? Will community-based research be understood and valued? As an example from soil science, those with Extension appointments have a mandate to spend much of their time maintaining stakeholder relationships that are often social-justice promoting and also very important to the university, yet this is poorly understood in the non-agricultural parts of most universities. As external grant support has become ever-more important in tenure decisions, Extension faculty have had ever-harder times making tenure. Similar stories are heard from community-engaged researchers across the university.

e.      They have plenty of papers, but are they in “top quality” or “high-impact” journals? Again, "top quality" means mainstream while diversity is outside the mainstream, so there will often be a mismatch between the mainstream definition of "top quality" journals and the places in which truly diverse faculty members publish. This mismatch can be used as a weapon.

f.        Might they be criticized for bunching most of their papers in the recent past? Can that be used to question future productivity? Are papers or books “in press” discounted (Matthew, 2016a, p. xi)?

g.      For papers and/or grants, question their role in authorship. Can the ordering of authors’ names be used against them? How much did they contribute to the writing and/or intellectual content? Here there are often double standards: A white male shows strength of collaboration through shared authorship, while a woman or person of color will often be criticized for not being the major driver of enough projects.

h.      Teaching survey-scores are quantitative measures that are used as qualitative weapons. Also, were there comments about accent that are extrapolated to “communication skills” in general? Did students indirectly express their own racism or sexism in comments, which then activate those of reviewers or decision-makers?

i.        Etc.

B.      If the formal requirements for academic productivity have been met, then the institution creates, promulgates, and continues to develop any number of qualitative, subjective measures of “merit.” A conversation can concentrate on any of these to exclude diversity:

a.      Has the person shown leadership at the departmental, college, and university levels? Have they shown leadership in national professional organizations? Are they recognized internationally?

b.      What is the person’s “status” and “reputation?” Have they been invited to give talks outside their institution, and if so, were these “significant” invitations? Note that one is at the mercy of being invited, and even if there is quantity, then the quality can be questioned.

c.       Awards. How many and how significant? Do the mainstream and periphery have the same opportunities? Who gets nominated?

d.      Communication skills: Again, comments about accent or grammar can be extrapolated to “communication skills” in general.

e.      Can this person demonstrate “impact?” Commonly, ISI or google scholar are used to tally citation count, h-index, etc. Every field has differing norms for the magnitudes of these numbers and they will also depend strongly on subdiscipline (since these numbers depend on the number of practitioners and their peer-reviewed journal publication rates), so one’s citation count can be used in many ways in arguments.

f.        Has the person shown “initiative,” aggressiveness, entrepreneurialism, strategic thinking, and the like? Have these been defined in a conventional white-male sense, or can it be argued that even getting to the PhD from a 1st-generation-college background shows extraordinary initiative and perseverance?

g.      Is the person “collegial” or “angry” or “withdrawn and distant?” Do they “fit in” to the dominant culture? If this is a requirement, then are we really valuing diversity? (Haag, 2005; Matthew, 2016b, p. 15).

h.      The “subtle nature” (Matthew, 2016b, p. 15) of all these criteria is directly related to professed color blindness (Leap, 1995; Sanchez, 2016).


Literature cited

Dotson, Kristie. 2012. How is this paper philosophy? Comparative Philosophy 3(1):3-29.

Haag, Pamela. 2005. Is Collegiality Code for Hating Ethnic, Racial, and Female Faculty at Tenure Time? The Education Digest 71:57-62.

Leap, Terry L. 1995. Tenure discrimination and African-American faculty. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 7:103-105.

Matthew, Patricia A. 2016a. Preface – It’s not just us. This is happening everywhere: On CVs and the Michigan Women. p. xi-xvii, in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. P.A. Matthew (ed). University of North Carolina Press.

Matthew, Patricia A. 2016b. Written/Unwritten: The gap between theory and practice. p. 1-25 in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. P.A. Matthew (ed). University of North Carolina Press.


This page last updated 20 Apr 2018 - 8:50am