December 08, 2007

This sounds familiar

From a comment on an article in the Chronicle of higher education:

MIT does not really tenure for excellence in research. Like other top-of-the-top universities, MIT tenures for reputation of excellence in research. (Forget about teaching or service; neither factors into the equation.)
This means two things: First, cutting-edge research, risky research, or what the corporate-types like to call “thinking outside of the box” is not viable when faced with a grueling tenure process, based so heavily upon peer review that—in order to garner outstanding reviews—one must cater to the preconceptions of one’s peers at other top institutions. Thus, much like that Other university up the road, MIT is forced poach its very best scholars who first proved their genius elsewhere, because the tenure process does not allow its own junior faculty the time or intellectual flexibility to excel at that level.

What does this have to do with gender (or race)? Well, peer review might claim to be an “objective” analysis of research, but any psychologist or sociologist worth their salt will tell you that evaluation of one’s peers is a social process. And look at the gender and racial breakdowns of these “peers.” White to a man. MIT’s unyielding adherence to reputation can and will only reproduce the social circle (white, male) of those called upon to evaluate the reputation. Meanwhile, there is a myopic and simple-minding insistence, pervasive throughout the institute, that this tenure process is somehow “objective” (tossing out a century of social science on the impossibility of such a thing), which leaves the Institute unable to address the problem.
Only after women and minorities (and white men with numbers of women or minorities in their social circle) have broken into other top and just-below the top institutions, and occupy positions of power in the profession, will they then advocate for those in their social networks in tenure cases at MIT. And only then will MIT’s tenuring process be physically able to recognize these one-time outsiders as worthy of tenure.

Most of the other comments are simply odious. For example, the way the next comment flatly denies that sex and gender play any role any the tenure process and raises the specter of -- oh noes! -- people getting things they don't deserve. The commenter is, evidently, completely ignoring decades of research that the same CV is consistently rated as less impressive when there's a woman's name at the top. S/he certainly misses the entire point of the previous comment.

Yes, these data show that the number and percentage of female faculty receiving tenure at MIT is increasing slowly. However, by themselves, these numbers do not prove that gender discrimination took place. In order to prove this, it would be necessary to provide evidence that female tenure candidates achieved the research record necessary to attain tenure, but were turned down because they were women (i.e., because of their genitalia or feminine attributes) .... It seems logical to believe that the vast majority of highly educated people would not turn down a candidate that has achieved the necessary record of accomplishments for tenure because of their genitalia or femininity. The flip side of this is whether a candidate without the necessary record of accomplishments should be granted tenure because of their genitalia or femininity so the percentages improve more quickly and become more equal? Those who use identity politics to try to leverage power and resources for individuals who may not merit them would say yes.

Now, I actually don't agree entirely with the first comment. S/he says that an objective evaluation is impossible. I think that an objective hiring process is possible. Or, to be more specific, an evaluation in which the consideration of candidates' races and genders and the fact of historical and ongoing discrimination against members of certain races and genders are considered specifically at certain points, would be more objective than the current system. When it comes to junior faculty, for example, measures could be taken to make sure the initial stages are completely anonymous (or as anonymous as possible), and gender, sex, and racial identity could be used to choose between candidates considered to be of the same quality by the initial stages.

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