Stay out of my commitments

In his latest post, Douglas Natelson at Nanoscale Views bravely attempts to explain to the rest of us what a “conflict of commitment” is. At most research universities, faculty have to make formal yearly disclosure of any activity in which they engage (during working hours, I presume), not directly related to their immediate academic duties, possibly negatively affecting (conflicting with) their scholarly performance.
In turn, Universities set up elaborate policies on how best to “regulate” such activities. What should be permitted ? Where is the line to be drawn ? What kind of action should be required, on the part of the University administration, to curb any instance of faculty committing excessive time to “extracurricular” endeavours, to the detriment of their productivity ?

I wish I had some useful suggestion for Doug, or any other academic who has (had) the misfortune of being tied up for a week, a term or even more time, arguing over this subject (or one of the many similar others that administrations are fond of inflicting upon their faculty).
Alas, I don’t. In fact, whenever I find myself in the vicinity of colleagues or administrators debating issues such as this one, I quickly think of a pretext to excuse myself, and look for the nearest exit. In those cases in which this is not a viable proposition, if I am supposed to contribute to such a discussion, I try for the most part to sit quietly through it, without getting upset, ignoring as much as possible the inherent futility and ridiculousness of the whole situation.

What remedy can I possibly suggest, for what is essentially a non-existent problem ? To me, this is another case of “administrators gone wild” (maybe we should make a video about it, sometime… possibly even a special Spring Break edition). What we have here, are individuals supposedly charged with ensuring the smooth, efficient day-to-day operations of an institution of higher learning, attempting to shove unneeded regulations, committees, paperwork, red tape down the collective throat of the faculty.
And, while it may be sold to the greater public as an exercise in “accountability’, its actual, subtle, subliminal goal is that of establishing a hierarchy, instilling academic faculty (namely individuals who elected to pursue their profession mainly, if not exclusively for the purpose of exercising freely their creativity) with a sense that they are being closely monitored and scrutinized, that there are higher authorities whose permission must be obtained and to which explanations must be provided whenever requested.
In short, it is an operation whose motivation and aim are purely ideological — they have absolutely nothing to do with ensuring accountability, much less efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars. The actual, not so mysterious goal, is that of chipping away at academic freedom, a notion with which many (mainly right-wing) politicians have a problem.

The notion of “conflict of commitment” implies that time spent doing “other things” is taken away from a person’s main activity. But, academia can not be regarded as another nine-to-five job. By its own nature, scholarly work does not exclusively take place inside an office or a laboratory, and attempting to quantify it in terme of hours spent at specific places, is silly and misguided. And, it is not necessary. Much easier it is simply to look at how much a person has delivered, regardless of when and where she did the work. Yes, it is that straightforward.
OK, wait a minute, now, Massimo: is the evaluation of the performance of a human by another human not always going to be “subjective”, to a degree ? Yes, there is no arguing over that. However, perhaps no other profession such as mine allows for a more direct, unambiguous, quantitative and (reasonably) objective assessment of the performance on the job of one of its practitioners.

It is worth pointing out one important difference between the private sector and academia. In the former, e.g., at a high-tech firm, typically only a few individuals come in direct contact with any given employee on a regular basis, and can thus provide a first hand opinion on the person’s ability. Whatever written record is kept (if any) of the evaluation of the worker, remains strictly confidential — it is property of the firm and will usually not be disclosed to the outside world. For example, no one at, say, Microsoft, will ever compare the code written by one of their programmers, to similar code written by an equivalent programmer at, say, Apple (not that I know of, anyway).
Finally, one will be normally working within a large team, making the zeroing in on a single employee’s individual contribution a very difficult proposition (but, since I know nothing of the private sector, I shall let the expert speak more authoritatively about it).

What about academia ? Well, here things tend to be, how shall I put it… pretty brutal ?
Scholarly research is subjected to the rigorous, formal vetting process represented by publication, whether that be in the form of peer reviewed articles in specialized journals, books, edited book chapters, literature review or other forms of publication, depending on the field of inquiry.
The impact of publications can in turn also be quantified — directly by means of metrics such as the number of citations, the impact factor of the journal, as well as by indirect measures such as invitations to speak, prizes, as well as research grants.
Naturally, there are also the opinions expressed by senior colleagues, often requested by university administration to provide a candid, objective, blunt assessment of the contribution of a junior colleague.
And in academia, virtually all record is public, and can be accessed by anyone with a web browser. Consequently, the scholarly output of an individual academic is constantly compared to that of her peers, not just in her department, but also in her college, school, as well as at competing institutions.
What about teaching ? Well, that is even more brutal. Seriously, I doubt if I need to tell anyone about student evaluations. And yes, those are largely public too, either the formal ones, administered by the institution, or the informal ones (RateMyProfessor, anyone ?).
Finally, academic service (which is not as important as research and teaching) can also be quantified, this one rather easily, for one is mainly talking about committee assignments, also part of the official departmental record.

My point is, it is impossible in academia for anyone obviously, egregiously under-performing, to “fly under the radar”. The administration may or not elect to take action against them, but that these individuals will be spotted, is simply not up for discussion. No one can go for a long time without publishing, doing a bad job at teaching, not showing up for class etc., without someone else (typically a lot of people) noticing it [0].
So, given that it is possible to measure fairly objectively the performance of any one of us, I am going to venture to state the following, which expresses my “philosophy” on this subject:

There is no such thing as “conflict of commitment” — only satisfactory or unsatisfactory performance.
Academic freedom means that faculty can elect to organize their time and activity (work and leisure) as they please, as long as classroom teaching and office hours obligations be met, and that scholarly output be regarded as sufficient. Measuring the performance of an academic faculty using accepted scholarly metrics, is the one and only thing that administrators should content themselves with doing. If it be resolved that a faculty’s academic performance is seriously deficient, and no extenuating circumstances can be invoked (e.g., health or family reasons), then disciplinary action against said faculty is warranted, regardless of the worthiness of any other “commitment” that may have kept the person from doing her job.
Conversely, if it be established that the person’s performance is altogether satisfactory; that all that is expected of her is being delivered; that no obvious shortcomings can be found and/or serious complaints have been raised; in that case, how the person has spent her time; how many coffee breaks she has taken; when and where she has done the work; whatever else she has “committed to” that may or not have some impact on her academic performance; how many charity events she has organized; how many fussball tournaments she has attended/won; how many ridiculous blog posts she has written; and, how much time all of that may have taken away from to the person’s scholarly work — all of that should be regarded as nobody’s business but hers (or, possibly, of the tax collection agency).
Any attempt on the part of a university administration to stick its nose investigate, regulate or manage all of that is unjustified, unnecessary, arrogant, intrusive and wasteful.

I think that is pretty much all I have to say about this. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to fill out my annual “conflict of commitment” form.

Notes

[0] It is worth clarifying that, in order for a faculty to be granted significant relief from teaching, or in any case to spend significant amounts of time doing something other than teaching, research or academic service, she must have submitted a specific request to the university administration to that effect, a request that the administration must have approved, or it would not be happening. Obviously, by signing off on the request the administration explicitly endorses whatever extracurricular activity in which the faculty engages.

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11 Responses to “Stay out of my commitments”

  1. El Charro Says:

    As I was reading Doug’s post, I wasn’t thinking about the professors who in their “free” time do some other activity but that maintain a reasonable research program and teaching duties in their department. I think it’ll be hard to objectively criticize people like that.

    I was really thinking about those professors who have made a name in their discipline after many years of research/teaching and that suddenly decide that they need to spend a lot of time doing something else. In many of these cases, those professors are able to maintain a reasonable research effort under their name (by hiring research professors, or having co-advisors for their students, in essence passing on the ball to someone else but making it look like it is their effort in a significant way). A few names come to mind, and if you want me to, I can post some of those names. I’ll hold off on that though, in case you don’t want to have names in your blog.

    That doesn’t mean what they are doing is not important, just that it isn’t clear that it is important or useful to either their department (which in my mind should be their first priority), nor to their university (maybe second priority?).

    • Massimo Says:

      See Note [0]. In order for someone not to teach as much as his colleagues, an administrator must have given permission, otherwise it would not be happening — it would be against collective bargaining agreements which other faculty would readily impugn. So, implicitly the administration is accepting that. Evidently they figure that the presence of that person in the faculty benefits the university, directly or indirectly, in a way that more than compensates for the loss of teaching. You need not furnish any example to me, I have seen that repeatedly with Nobel laureates.
      We may argue over where one draws the line, and I have seen cases in the departments where I have been a faculty, that I found objectionable, but there is no question that a department chair, a dean and a provost were signing off on those requests.

      As for the notion that there are very productive and successful individuals who “are not really doing any work, they are just piggybacking on the effort of their postdocs/graduate students/colleagues/friends/collaborators”, as you know I do not take that kind of contention very seriously, and I doubt if anyone really does. It is just one of those urban legends that postdocs or graduate students who are fed up with their advisors (and probably rightfully so) are fond of perpetuating, but that have little to do with reality.
      I am not sure on what factual basis one would ever say anything like that, much less prove it of anyone — which is why if you want to name names (perhaps including your own ?) I would suggest that you do it on your own blog, I myself am not really into slander.

      • El Charro Says:

        Are you saying that no administrator is ever pressured to say yes just because the professor asking is a big shot in the department/university? Aren’t professors hired to teach primarily? Running a research program by itself doesn’t constitute teaching to me. If your group consists of grad students and postdocs then fine. But if you’re group is only research scientists/engineers then I can’t really see who’s being taught.

        I don’t get your last point. For my masters degree, I was in the group of a professor, who happened to be the president of a big university in a far away country and who I saw 4 times during my 2 years as part of his group (5 if you count the time he interviewed me before accepting me in his group). I saw with my own eyes that the grants were written by the research scientists who worked for that professor in the university were I was (there were a total of 4 research scientists). Because he was reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally busy in his other place, he explicitly told the grad students that any question was to be directed to the research scientist in charge of that project and not to him because he could not guarantee a quick response. And only contact him after several efforts had been made but the problem was still unresolved.

        It’s not like he didn’t do anything.He was the official advisor, the one whose name appears as group leader on everyone’s theses/dissertations. He did read the theses/dissertations and traveled back to the US for the final defenses. He also read and approved the final versions of grants and papers before submission. So, sure, he was not piggybacking, but he certainly wasn’t doing as much as he should’ve been doing. In a way, he was doing just what any other dissertation committee member was doing, but he was the actual advisor. And just because those complaints/comments aren’t taken seriously doesn’t mean the problems are not real.

        Another, maybe not so serious experience was during my graduate level statistical mechanics core course taken in a Spring semester. The professor who was teaching the class booked his flight ticket to his country of origin (in which he has a summer collaboration that the department brags about) for a week before the semester ended. He left and sent the TA to administer the final exam. Or course, because he was in another country and didn’t have the exams with him, he couldn’t grade them and we didn’t get our grade until 2-3 months later (once the Fall semester began and he was back in the states). And the department/university were aware that the grades hadn’t been published but weren’t able to pressure the professor to finish his job.

        I wasn’t in that group, but the people who failed and had to retake it didn’t find out until the Fall semester had started, had to reshuffle their schedules.

        Was it a big deal? Probably not. Was it BS that he left before he finished his teaching commitment and wasn’t or couldn’t be pressured in any way to speed up the grade reporting? Yes.

        Are those not conflict of commitments?

      • Massimo Says:

        Are you saying that no administrator is ever pressured to say yes just because the professor asking is a big shot in the department/university?

        This is what I wrote:
        “Evidently they figure that the presence of that person in the faculty benefits the university, directly or indirectly, in a way that more than compensates for the loss of teaching.”

        Aren’t professors hired to teach primarily? Running a research program by itself doesn’t constitute teaching to me. If your group consists of grad students and postdocs then fine.

        No, professors are not hired primarily to do classroom teaching; at a research institution, they are hired to do teaching and research, in roughly equal proportions. Often times one ends up doing more of one than of the other, things are never clear cut in any human operation (in the private sector either). And, running a research group may not “look like teaching to you”, but is believed to have educational value, not just by Universities but by funding agencies as well.

        None of the examples you gave constitutes a conflict of commitment, and I really think you are misunderstanding what that expression means. In one case, you are describing an obvious screw-up by someone not doing their job properly, and a serious chair or dean will be sure to put that in writing on their annual evaluation (and possibly there will be disciplinary consequences as well). I know that there are some people out there who are not serious, but I don’t see what that proves.

        As for the other example — Sure, there are academics who run large groups, and as a result their individual interaction with any member of their group is less than if they ran a small group like I do. Again, so what ? There are advantages and disadvantages in being part of a large group, and I have written about that before; a prospective student or postdoc had better be aware of what things are going to be like, if they elect to join that group. For some it is fine, for others it does not work — but no faculty or administrator would ever argue that running a large research group amounts to “forgoing one’s obligations”.

  2. Doug Natelson Says:

    Massimo, you’re surely right that performance vs nonperformance is really the only thing that counts. The problems are in defining performance, deciding who evaluates it and how, and what to do in the case of nonperformance. What would your institution do if there was a senior faculty member spending much of their time with running a startup, to the extent that they had their grad students sub routinely for teaching? What about if the senior faculty member accepted an academic appointment in, e.g., Singapore, and spent weeks there, to the detriment of their responsibilities, without taking a formal leave or submitting some kind of relief request?

    Yes, sometimes administrators can run amok, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a real issue here. The fact that the academic environment is so fluid and forgiving is both a blessing and a curse.

    • Massimo Says:

      What would your institution do if there was a senior faculty member spending much of their time with running a startup ?

      As it happens, it is precisely a situation that existed at my previous institution. I was bitterly vocal in expressing my frustration with it (as a tenure-track assistant professor, mind you, and the person running a startup was of course a tenured faculty), and was explained that the administration felt that that was an activity (running a startup) that the university had “every interest in supporting”. If it had been me I would have said “Hell, NO !”, but the same administrators who sternly demand that people who are active, who publish and teach “disclose their other commitments”, are the ones who take the “nudge nudge wink wink” approach with others whose academic performance is already dubious to begin with.

      What about if the senior faculty member accepted an academic appointment in, e.g., Singapore, and spent weeks there, to the detriment of their responsibilities, without taking a formal leave or submitting some kind of relief request ?

      The senior faculty member cannot do that, unless the administration determines that their effort in Singapore is likely to benefit the institution in ways that justify the loss of teaching (e.g., recruiting, international liaisons, prestige for the university etc.). It’s a judgment call, of course, and you and I may disagree on the actual effectiveness of individual initiatives, but I don’t think we could label something like that as “extracurricular”. Missions abroad are very common in the private sector too and in specific contexts they are part of the job.

      But the point is, in all of these cases there is nothing to “disclose”, an agreement between the individual and the institution must exist from the very beginning or it simply could not happen. You can’t just not show up for class or send a TA to teach — nowhere I have worked anyway.

      • Doug Natelson Says:

        I guess I don’t understand when you say “The senior faculty member cannot do that”. Why not? What’s to prevent it happening? Presumably you mean “cannot do that [without there being dire consequences like termination if it is done without the consent of the administration]“. I’m sure you’ve encountered colleagues who operate by the “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” philosophy….

      • Massimo Says:

        Well, Doug, I have to confess that I also do not understand what you mean when you say “a senior faculty member simply goes there or does that, and neglects his teaching obligations”… How does that happen ? You mean, someone is scheduled to teach a course and they just don’t show up ? Or, they send one of their postdocs to teach ? Can they really do that at Rice ? At SDSU or Alberta they would get themselves into major trouble, I can guarantee that…
        If on the other hand they manage to negotiate a sweet teaching load reduction for themselves, on the ground that they are busy solving mankind’s problems, now that is a different story, but that makes the whole notion of “conflict of commitment” irrelevant, for the person is not “neglecting” anything — the university administration signs off on their request.

      • Doug Natelson Says:

        Well, if someone has to, e.g., attend a NSF panel (a perfectly reasonable academic activity), it’s not unusual to arrange a substitute lecturer. In answer to your question, yes, I’m thinking about someone having a postdoc show up to teach. The situations I’m thinking about tend not to involve large lecture courses, but perhaps a specialized graduate course with a small enrollment. Or, if you like, leave aside teaching. Similar things can happen with committee assignments. There are members of university standing committees, nominally assigned by the office of the president of the university, who just don’t go to the meetings (sometimes because of compelling reasons, sometimes not).

        Of course, these situations are exceptions and far from the norm.

      • Isotopic Says:

        Massimo, this is exactly what can occur at other institutions. I am aware of a recent addition to Alberta, for example, who was surprised to find that s/he was discouraged from having postdocs take on most of their teaching load. The researcher was previously at a large European institution where, apparently, it was possible to do this.

  3. Massimo Says:

    OK, in response to the last two comments by Doug and Isotopic — I think we are talking about different situations here. Of course it can happen to all of us to miss one or two lectures during a term, due to circumstances like that which Doug mentioned (serving on an NSF panel), or attending a conference, as well as of course due to health reasons. In those cases, it is perfectly reasonable to arrange to have another person teach, though I would personally never ask a postdoc to do that (the most I would ask them to do is proctor a midterm exam, and even for that they would really be the last resort for me). If it happens too many times during a term, then yes, I think it will be frowned upon, especially if there seems to be a pattern of work avoidance on the part of a faculty.

    If a faculty is aware at the start of the term of a number of valid commitments that will keep her away during that term, possibly significantly impairing her teaching, the proper course of action is that of having her teaching shifted to another term, and that also happens routinely. For example, I have a colleague who is an experimentalist and needs to be off site, at a major national facility, for extended periods of time, and requests to be able to do all of the assigned teaching during a single term. That is again perfectly acceptable, as the faculty in these situations are teaching their fair share, just not throughout the academic year. However, this is done through an informal arrangement with the department chair — no need for any “conflict of commitment” statement and no need for some bureaucrat to know about it, much less give permission. All of this requires nothing but common sense.

    On the other hand, something along the lines of a faculty summoning a postdoc in her office and saying “hey listen, I am supposed to teach that course this term but, eh, I don’t really feel like doing it — how ’bout you do it instead — we need not tell anyone, you just do it … and, oh, um, it will be, er, good experience for you” is regarded as inappropriate, unprofessional behaviour everywhere in North America, not just at Alberta (and rightfully so, if you ask me). It is unfair to the postdoc, unfair to the students taking the course, unfair to colleagues. And in most cases it may also be argued to be a breach of contract with the agency that provided the funds to hire the postdoc in the first place, as the understanding is generally that the person will be doing research, not teaching.
    That someone somewhere might be getting away with it, does not make it right — it simply says that some chair or administrator is not being vigilant, and/or that some faculty receive preferential treatment at the expense of students and postdocs. Me, I would never allow anything like that.

    Teaching load reductions must be negotiated upfront with the department chair or the dean, not simply seized by unloading work onto someone in a weaker bargaining position. If a postdoc explicitly requests the opportunity of teaching, and insists on it even after being explained that it is a bad idea, that it is not what a postdoctoral appointment is for, the supervising faculty can submit a request to the chair to that effect — but it ought not affect the faculty’s teaching load.
    Anyone coming from Europe or anywhere else, expecting to be able to do that, was seriously misinformed regarding how academia works here.

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