Revisiting Anthropological Notes 3

What follows is a comment on Anthropological Notes 3. I am posting it because I think it is a very insightful  and partially correct criticism of the original "Anthropological Notes 3" and I wish I had thought of some of it.  I'd comment further myself but I have forgotten what irked me as much as it did. I think the commentator is right when he or she mentions "the context."  In fact, I was mocking the context because of its standards for what was to be regarded as noble and what was regarded as an appropriate reaction.  In a way, I guess that supports the thesis found in this little series of "notes." The context is an unusual and bizarre society. As an aside please do write any comments complimenting me on admitting my original blog might have been off a bit. Admissions like that are what normal people do.

Hi Jeffrey,

I am a fan of your blog, but I think you've got it wrong on this one. I was one of the law professors who complimented Rod Hills on his post and I did so precisely because he did something that you have repeatedly noted elites are almost constitutionally incapable of doing: demonstrate the self-awareness and sense of shame that are necessary to combat the sense of entitlement that you regularly rail against. 

I think you are correct when you write that Hills was not fishing for the kind of praise he received. Interestingly, this very fact seems to make the compliments paid to him--the very compliments you mock—even more warranted; in fact I am surprised you did not join in the complimenting. Others, many of whom think like you do, saw the genuineness of his humility and self reflection and thanked him for it. It's important to do this in a culture (that is, legal culture generally) wherein it seems the default response is to see such humility as a sign of weakness rather than to praise it as intellectually and personally brave and of great utility for systemic change. 

So I agree that Hills' post was not the Gettysburg Address but that actually helps make the point. It merely highlights the very premise driving Hills' apology and post. Given the insular nature of law professors' existence, such manifest shame is so unusual that the self-awareness he demonstrated becomes almost profound in context. Everything is relative. The commentators realized this and were thus inspired to give Hills a shout out. And I don't think the specific wording they chose to use was as inflated as you seem to think—again, given the context. The commentators were perhaps a bit more sensitive to the key considerations than you are being, which is, to your credit, not necessarily the norm. 

Anthropological Studies 4

Over on facebook I sometimes field letters addressed to the Law School Ethicist. It's a take off on the New Times Sunday Magazine column. I don't attempt to answer the questions sent to the "ethicist."  I am not qualified. I also do not make up all the questions asked. Almost all of them are based on actual incidents or are submitted to me. Recently I received this from a  close law school friend. His question in many ways captures something of the strange world of law professordom. 

Dear Jeff: Could you pass this on to the ethicist? What is the intention of the hiring process, exactly? I know that there are more than two views, but let me try to limit my question to two, since these two seem to me in tension. The first is a transparently meritocratic intention that acknowldeges a glittery resume indicating the potential for success in an academic post (success meaning advancement of various types for the new hire, the school, and its students). If the potential is realized, then so be it; if not, then it seems either the new hire squandered an opportunity or was overestimated by the hiring powers. Time for both to move on. The second is an opaquely nurturing intention where the hiring powers accept responsibility for the new hire as though the act of hiring was something they have done to (as opposed to for) the new hire. If he or she tanks, it is the fault of the hiring powers, not of the new hire. Accordingly, the promotion process is influenced by feelings of compassion manifested in utterances like "we need to bring Johnny up to speed before his next review. Let's get him some mentors!" Under the nurturing approach, the decision to hire carries an obligation to promote the new hire if at all plausible. Does the Ethicist prefer one approach to the other? Please advise.

My answer is that I personally prefer to first approach albeit administered in a helpful way. In the real world of law school hiring the second may be attractive but quickly morphs into a process that is really designed to avoid change and reinforce the power of incumbents. Nurturing has a nice sound but the goal of "nurturing" is to avoid having to admit a mistake. And nurturing, in the world of law professors, soon becomes creating an illusion about the new faculty member. Lousy scholarship is phrased and mentors scramble to make sure it is placed and then that it is positively reviewed. Someone who is slow in producing becomes "brilliant." Someone who has trouble in the classroom will have the classroom visited and the report will invariable be that he or she is a well organized and caring teacher who is actually too good for the students.  

Hiring someone does carry with it the obligation -- to the institution -- to do what is reasonable to help them succeed. But remember, they are typically adult graduates of elite law schools. What is reasonable stops well short of the hand-holding which is what typically goes on -- teaching loads are reduced, summer grants are granted,  and multiple mentors are appointed. In a very real sense it should be insulting to the new hire. What is reasonable also stops when those hiring begin to act like success or failure reflects on their own judgment and grease the skids. When they do that all they do is tenure someone and donate to them for life a position maybe a person who actually would be productive would hold. But such is this strange culture. 

Anthropological Notes 3

I have spent some time lately reading other blogs. I like Above the Law and find The Faculty Lounge interesting. There is another blog, however, that makes my efforts at exposing the bizarre word of  privileged professors look feeble, at best. On that blog one can easily find commentary over days and numbering close to triple digits on what to do if someone does not keep an appointment or if an email is quoted. There are issues like just how oppressive it is to grade exams.  Just go there and forget about this blog. Entire dissertations could be written about the characteristics of the culture you will find.

It is somewhat like a faculty meeting -- a great deal of aggressive self-interested behavior carefully disguised so as to appear like civil discussion.  It's amazing the number of ways people can tell others they are idiots but maintain their deniability. And, some of the butt kissing is embarrassing. When you like someone's post or comment there are congratulatory platitudes that will make you want to look away. "Thank you for doing this, and for contributing to thoughtful discussion on the internet." says one. Another goes with, "An extraordinarily gracious and knowing post." And how about,  "This post is a remarkable act of introspection and self-interpretation." And what are these comments referring to: The Gettysburg Address? Letter From a Birmingham Jail? Meta World Peace's after game commentary?

Not exactly. These comments are for an admittedly privileged and sheltered law professor who wondered "out loud" on a blog what one might do to overcome the handicap of privilege. Yes, in a sense he was wallowing in the self pity induced by knowing he has it made. No, I am not kidding and I want to quickly add that I do not think the writer of the original piece was fishing for this level of gushing.

In subjective competitions it is said that judges keep the scores of the first competitors low in order to save something up if another competitor blows them away. What have these commentator held back? What do they say if they read a spectacular article or a moving poem. Maybe "Your analysis of Citizens United made me weep." "I knew from the first line that I was not worthy of your genius."

Remember, this was for someone -- one of their own -- who basically asked "Is there a way for me to be less of a jerk."

Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Three timely Offline columns by Richard Horton describe a mindless managerial rampage spreading through Queen Mary University of London, UK. Barts and The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, has declared distinguished medical researchers to be at risk of redundancy.

Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences now follows suit. As we write, colleagues declared to be “at risk” just 2 weeks ago are summoned individually to closed audiences with the Head of School, attended by members of the ironically named “Human Resources” (HR) department. If targeted individuals fail to appease the inquisitor, they will be sacked. Other staff members are earmarked for demotion, with replacement “Teaching and Scholarship” contracts that will oblige them to desist from independent research.

But, one might ask, is it not high time to weed out slackers? It might help if one had any way of knowing who they are. Sadly, the “restructuring” hits exactly the wrong targets in many cases, and leaves unproductive academics unscathed. The reason is simple—the Head of School and HR have neither interest in, nor understanding of, individuals' research, still less their research potential. This slaughter of the talented relies entirely on a carefully designed set of retrospective counts of the uncountable. These are labelled research “metrics”.

Are we engaged in special pleading here? Actually, no. Our school has a reputation, envied worldwide, for research by individuals now for the chop. Their retrospective crimes, committed between 2008 and 2011, include too few publications as a “significant” author in high-impact journals, below-average external funding, and failure to meet metrics for allocation of PhD studentships. Where the baseline of research income derived from the Higher Education Funding Council for England has disappeared, no-one seems to know.

So, we are looking at the end of the road for unique and internationally leading-edge Queen Mary research. Among many outstanding projects we stand to lose are: sociogenomics of mole rats, the only eusocial mammals, and a model, incidentally, for the endocrinology of bullying; genetics of circadian rhythms and iron homoeostasis from experiments on fruit-flies; imaging of neural activity in zebrafish—a paradigm for vertebrate development; and heterogeneous catalytic oxidation and carbon—carbon coupling in inorganic chemical synthesis. The list is long.

Alas, there are no boxes to tick for advances in knowledge and understanding—no metrics for science itself. Over in the Medical and Dental School, the grand inquisitor is identified as the Dean for Research, whose own research credentials are, naturally, unavailable for scrutiny. Never mind, we now have the assurance from his colleague that “Each and every faculty member of the college was assessed in this process and from my own personal point of view it was done fairly…”

Who needs evidence in the face of such assurance? “Consequently, to pick him out for criticism in this disgraceful manner is quite iniquitous”. Yet the Dean managed to pick out others—for oblivion, not just criticism. And he got it wrong. The same double standard follows, now, in our School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. For example, one of the “metrics” for research output at professorial level is to have published at least two papers in journals with impact factors of 7 or more. This is ludicrous, of course—a triumph of vanity as sensible as selecting athletes on the basis of their brand of track suit.

But let us follow this “metric” for a moment. How does the Head of School fair? Zero, actually. He fails. Just consult Web of Science. Take care though, the result is classified information. HR's “data” are marked Private and Confidential.

Some things must be believed. To question them is heresy. We hope to report back on our Head's one-to-one interview with himself. After all, we have his word, and that of College senior management, that the restructuring is proceeding with complete fairness and transparency. Perhaps he'll use a mirror?


Dismissal threat for metrics letter

Queen Mary, University of London has warned one of its academics that he faces an investigation that potentially could lead to dismissal, after he wrote a letter criticising its metrics-based redundancy programme and two senior managers.

Fanis Missirlis, a lecturer in cell biology, and a colleague put their names to a letter to The Lancet that was published online on 4 May. On 14 May, Dr Missirlis received a letter from a human resources officer at Queen Mary telling him that the college had "decided to commence a fact-finding investigation" into an allegation that in publishing the letter he "sought to bring the Head of School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (Matthew Evans) and the Dean for Research in the School of Medicine and Dentistry (Thomas MacDonald) into disrepute". If the allegations proceed to a full disciplinary hearing and are substantiated, they may constitute misconduct, the letter says, or even gross misconduct, "which could lead to dismissal".

Queen Mary's disciplinary code says managers will "investigate thoroughly any allegations of misconduct that come to their attention and decide if formal action is needed". The restructuring programmes in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and the School of Medicine and Dentistry - which are using metrics intended to measure research performance to select candidates for redundancy - have provoked concern among academics at Queen Mary.

In the letter to The Lancet, Dr Missirlis - who has also written a letter to Times Higher Education on the subject - says the "retrospective crimes" of those selected for redundancy, "committed between 2008 and 2011, include too few publications as a 'significant' author in high-impact journals, below-average external funding, and failure to meet metrics for allocation of PhD studentships". He refers to the dean of research in the School of Medicine and Dentistry as the "grand inquisitor" in that school and says the dean's own research credentials "are, naturally, unavailable for scrutiny".

In the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Dr Missirlis says, "one of the 'metrics' for research output at professorial level is to have published at least two papers in journals with impact factors of 7 or more". He asks how the head of the school would fare on that basis.

Chris Pearson, director of human resources at Queen Mary, said: "Colleagues are free to publicly discuss their concerns over restructuring, and we have encouraged discussion and feedback ... We never discuss or comment on individual cases of staff who may or may not be involved in disciplinary matters."


University of Canberra case tests anti-bullying boundaries

IN 2008, James Warden was in the bosom of the University of Canberra. He helped stage its 40th anniversary celebrations, wrangled government money for a new Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage and became its first director.

A year later, Mr Warden was no longer director. Last December, he was gone from the university. The falling out is documented in 17 pages of a statement of claim filed with the Federal Court, where Mr Warden is seeking damages. He has his first hearing date on Friday week.

Mr Warden, whose background is in history and cultural studies, says he is unsure why he came undone, but believes that his treatment at Canberra is not an isolated case. "The level of intimidation and persecution left me no option but to resign," he said. He thinks enthusiasm for his institute did not survive a change in middle management.

In September 2009, he said, he was abruptly removed as director and confronted with the first in a series of "throwaway" allegations. "They were a shopping list of complaints, none of which were documented," he said. According to Mr Warden's statement of claim, the university's allegations included "unspecified irregularities" in spending at the institute.

Mr Warden denies any such thing, pointing out that expenses had to be signed off by the dean and acquitted under an ACT government deed of grant. The university also claimed Mr Warden continued to hold out as institute director to undermine his replacement. "Not true," said Mr Warden. He said publications that were in print when he was director appeared after his removal. Introduced at a conference as director, he corrected the record.

The university began a formal investigation into his case and appointed a review committee. "It was minor administrative stuff that they had trumped up as serious misconduct," Mr Warden said. "I was lucky that I had a competent committee with integrity who looked at it and said, 'There's nothing here'."

At odds with the views of the committee, the university told Mr Warden he was "formally censured", according to his statement of claim. At one point in the drawn-out conflict the university directed him to see a psychiatrist. "He said, 'Nothing wrong, looks like an industrial issue'," Mr Warden said.

One of his legal claims is novel for higher education. His lawyers argue the university as a corporation engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct because it led him to believe it would abide by its anti-bullying policy. The university declined to comment on legal grounds.