Murky Environments in Academe

They pose serious career challenges because, too often, you think you understand the internal workings more than you do

Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review

June 16, 2014

I was attending a conference meeting in a foreign city reputed to be somewhat dangerous when I decided to take a walk in a nearby neighborhood. Upon returning to the hotel, the concierge told me I was lucky not to have been mugged or even killed. The neighborhood had not looked dangerous to me. But at least two colleagues attending the same meeting had been mugged on escalators by a pair of thieves who had situated themselves in front of and behind their target. The victims had both been caught off guard. After all, who worries about getting mugged on an escalator?

We were negotiating what proved to be a murky environment. That one happened to be overseas, but murky environments are everywhere to be found in academic settings, which are, in a sense, themselves foreign cities reputed to be somewhat dangerous.

A murky environment is one that is unclear, obscure, confused, or otherwise obfuscated. Murky environments are local; each has to be understood on its own terms. They pose serious career challenges because we often feel like we should understand a particular environment or we think we do understand it. But we don’t.

Over the course of a career, almost everyone enters multiple murky environments—places where you think you should know the rules but then you begin to question whether anyone does. The experience is somewhat analogous to what airplane pilots or underwater divers go through when they experience spatial disorientation and lose their frame of reference. Often you don’t recognize the murkiness of a local environment until it is too late.

A colleague of mine who had worked hard toward tenure was told just before her case was coming up for a decision that she had too many grants and publications. That had led her fellow faculty members to question her commitment to teaching, which, she now was told, was the main function of the university. Yet in graduate school and up to that moment, she always had believed she would be rewarded for her research productivity.

In contrast, a colleague at another campus was told that his teaching and research were excellent but that he made his colleagues uncomfortable and was not perceived as a good fit with his department. He had been unaware of this problem up to that point, and had no clue about its origins, other than that he seemed to be outperforming those who were judging his promotion.

As an academic, you are judged on your scholarship, teaching, and service (to institution and profession). You may also be evaluated on two criteria that are less likely to be made explicit: your reputation and your perceived fit with the institution. All of those criteria can be sources of murkiness, even if they are presented to you as being crystal clear.

With regard to research, academics are given a mandate: Do good scholarship, and enough of it. What is often unclear is how quality or quantity is to be measured. Some tenure committees make their own judgments by reading candidates’ research. But more and more committees emphasize the number of citations for the journals in which the scholar publishes. Some committees are fine with publications in online journals, whereas other committees remain skeptical. And what if the scholar’s research is cited—but by academics in fields other than the one in which the candidate is to be judged?

Judgments of quantity are no easier to, well, quantify. How much is a book worth for tenure versus an article? A longer book versus a shorter one? A chapter in an edited book versus an article in a refereed journal?

It is no simpler with teaching. Who really puts great stock in student evaluations, knowing that they are affected by less-than-relevant variables like whether the faculty member was an easy grader, entertaining in class, or assigned little homework? Peer ratings of teaching are used by some institutions, but the results can vary, depending on who the peers are and which particular classes they happen to observe.

Often the most important teaching is done outside formal teaching contexts, such as through one-on-one advising. But that sort of advising may or may not be explicitly counted toward tenure, and if it is, it is often difficult to appraise how well it has been done.

How to evaluate a faculty member’s service is equally hazy. What counts? How does one compare departmental service, university service, and service to one’s field?

Murkiest of all are the unstated promotion criteria, such as how well you "fit" your department. The issue of fit often becomes a euphemism for whether colleagues like you. It may include some assessment of how well you match the values of the institution, but often those values are not clearly delineated, nor is it clear how they can be measured.

In plenty of tenure cases, one has the feeling that committee members reach a decision in large part on the basis of perceived fit and then try to find a way to make the other, more-tangible categories—research, teaching, or service—appear to be responsible for the decision. The committee members may not even be aware that they are doing that: Fit is often something one feels emotionally rather than reflects upon rationally or consciously.

Reputation would seem to be some unknown combination of all of the above criteria, but often it is not. Ask most senior professors and they will tell you that there are academics with reputations that simply don’t make sense: professors with strong reputations despite weak academic records and other faculty members with much weaker reputations than they deserve. Perhaps charisma or other personality factors also enter into reputation, but they are no easier to measure than anything else.

If you are in a murky environment on any one (or more) of those fronts, and especially if you are a new faculty member, you need guidance on how to perform at your best and how to demonstrate that performance. As a dean and a provost, I saw many sad cases of junior faculty members who had paid attention to the former but not the latter. You need to know both what counts and how to show you’ve got the goods.

The problem is: It’s not easy to get good guidance. And sometimes, as happened to the two colleagues I mentioned, the stated rules and the ones by which you are judged prove to be two different things. You need mentors. And because human advice is fallible, you need multiple mentors and you need them to have expertise in different, sometimes overlapping, criteria.

Many Ph.D.’s think their need for active mentorship ends when they complete graduate school or a postdoctoral fellowship. Actually, that is when the need becomes most acute. In graduate school, you have (or should have) one or more advisers explicitly charged with watching over you. But when you start your faculty career, you often have no explicit mentor. That is when you most need multiple mentors guiding you on the different potential sources of disorientation as you pursue your research, teaching, and service duties.

So what should you do when you realize, gradually or suddenly, that you are in the midst of a murky environment?

First of all, take it seriously. Pilots who experience spatial disorientation and are unable to recover are liable to lose control of the aircraft and go into what is called a death (or graveyard) spiral. Deep-sea divers, too, may think they are heading toward the surface, only to find out too late they were heading toward the bottom of the ocean. The problem is that in spatial disorientation, your senses are typically giving conflicting information and your cognitive processing of it is faulty.

Likewise in an academic career, it’s important to recognize the environment as murky before it is too late, to figure out (if possible) the source of murkiness, and to have mentors ready to advise you on how to move ahead. I’ve encountered five common types of murkiness in academe:

  • Foggy. In this environment, you simply cannot see what the right thing for you to do is. The obfuscation may be deliberate or inadvertent. In academe, just as in driving, dangerous objects are often closer than they appear. For example, people in your department may not tell you what it means to "fit" because they want to have flexibility in deciding whether to keep you. So they fog things up because being clear about criteria would take away some of their flexibility.
  • Stormy. In these settings, what was right even a short time ago no longer is right. Such environments occur when there are new presidents, provosts, deans, chairs, or others who change the conventions under which faculty operated in the past. For example, teaching counted a lot for tenure until a new dean came in who decided that she wanted to accelerate the institution’s research reputation, and quite suddenly, and with much turbulence and agitation, things changed.
  • Wind. Here, headwinds may seem constantly to thwart your progress. Headwinds can be caused by colleagues who want to see you fail, by spreading yourself so thin that you can’t get anything done, or by a grant environment that makes it extremely difficult to get money for your empirical research. If you are lucky, you will experience tailwinds where others, including granting agencies and colleagues, help you to achieve goals that you probably would not have accomplished on your own. Winds can be sudden, and they are not necessarily preceded by warnings. Everyone who has experienced "clear-air turbulence" in airplanes knows how suddenly it can come on and how disorienting it can be.
  • Icy. In this environment, no matter where you try to move, you find yourself slipping. You can’t seem to get the footing you need to move forward in your career.
  • Topographically challenging. You find you simply don’t understand the terrain you need to navigate, and it is getting the better of you. You are expected to make too steep a climb or to make too many turns.

The best way to deal with any murky environments is to be on guard for three big risk factors. The first is that the environment may be murky without your sensing it. If you are not recognizing the trouble, you can’t do anything to resolve it.

The second risk factor: You attempt to transfer a specific solution that worked in some previous place to the present one. Pilots know, for example, that landing and taking off at different airports presents different challenges. Similarly, dealing with murky environments in academe requires knowledge relevant to each environment.

Finally, murky environments do not respond well to generalized solutions. You need local informants, not merely distant sources of advice that deal well with generic situations but not your specific one.

All you can do is keep flying and hope for a safe landing.

Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of human development at Cornell University. He has been a university dean, provost, and president. He is editor of The Modern Land-Grant University, to be published this summer by Purdue University Press.