Who Gets the Goodies (And How the Pie Is Divided)

January 9, 2010

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. By Michèle Lamont, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009, 336 pages, $27.95.

The title was absolutely intriguing, and I asked the SIAM News staff to obtain a review copy for me ASAP. I would have some fun. Even before the book arrived in the mail, I was creating witticisms in my mind.

How do professors think? They think in highfalutin abstractions. They think in footnotes and references. Some think in hypotheses and theorems; some are always critiquing. Others don't think at all: They just read old notes that they have PowerPointized.

Well, this is not at all what's in the book under review. What it is about is how decisions are made by panels, committees, councils, pow-wows, visiting mavens, gatekeepers, ambitious provosts who muck things up before moving on to a foundation or a college presidency. The decisions concern who gets the funding, the honors and prizes, the plum courses to teach; who gets hired and who does not; who gets tenure and promotion and who does not; who gets an extra six-month study leave to produce that long-awaited book on the wool trade in 14th-century Brabant.

Committees have been around for a long time. It was a committee that decided the fate of Julius Caesar. The U.S. Congress is awash in committees, which slow up its decisions in the name of thorough consideration of the matters at hand. And committees are not going away soon. As naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson put it:

"A committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature: it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn."

Over the years I have avoided committees like the plague, so I am indebted to Michèle Lamont for providing me with a taxonomy of the questions considered in camera, i.e., behind the closed doors of rooms often reputed to have been smoke-filled in years gone by.

Is this another of the books on rational (ha ha!) decision making of which there is now an over-supply? Not at all: The book---which I found a bit turgid and tedious---opens up, or pretends to open up, via interviews and exit questioning, what happens in closed sessions when selected humans---with all their talents, knowledge, and prejudices---review CVs, documents, gossip, and then jostle among themselves as to how to divide the pie. These people, who are sometimes peers of those being considered, argue with one another over their responsibilities---whether to elevate or lower reputations, how to balance expertise with diversity, how to balance the attractive force of old school ties with objective evaluations, how to rate this person against that person, how to fill pre-assigned quotas, or judge this institution against that. They must decide whether to favor a fox who is interdisciplinary or a hedge-hog who digs deeply into one small area.

What influences, e.g., psychological tendencies, bias, nepotism, cronyism, horse-trading, come into play? Should the easily employed "Matthew effect" (the tendency of money, honors, and the like to go where they have gone previously) be put on the table? Read the book for this and more of the kind. All these influences are possible, but at the end of the day the committee must avoid a blow-up. (In my day, I have witnessed or heard of a good half dozen significant blow-ups in as many universities.)

Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Harvard, has written two dozen articles as well as several books in the field. Using a 79-cent word, I would say that the book under review sets forth the hermeneutics of peer review, i.e., it studies the methodology and the implications of such reviews.

As a second feature, the book tackles a very tough question: What is excellence (or the reverse), and how do we go about identifying it? Do we put our fingers on it by scanning accomplishments? By testing? By interviewing? By tracing genealogy? By type-casting? By considering sexual orientation? By assembling a basket of features with assigned index numbers and then performing mathematical hocus-pocus? Is experience, either of the committee members or of the subject on whom the klieg lights are focused, of any importance? Do we agree to decide on excellence by tossing a coin so as to cut the yakking short because we have to break early to get to the bank before it closes? Sir Thomas Browne could not tell "by what logick we call a toad ugly," nor can I tell why I find a peacock beautiful.

Logic? Lamont gives six criteria for recognizing excellence: clarity, quality, originality, significance, methods, and feasibility. Reading this list put me in mind of the panels whose members sit in judgment of figure skaters, flashing their evaluations to the TV audience. Fantasizing, I see a committee member judging a candidate, or judging an accomplishment or a proposal, and then producing a 1 × 6 vector, such as (9, 9, 8, 3, 7, 10), that grades for clarity, quality, and so forth. The vectors of all the committee members are then thrown into one big matrix, and eigenanalysis is performed to arrive at a "yes" or a "no." Will Miss America 2010 be selected mathematically?

Though the book is written from the point of view of the humanistic studies, the questions are relevant to all university departments, and indeed to the whole of life. How do we make the comparisons on which subsequent decisions depend? What prescription plan shall we opt for? What car shall we buy? Whose advice shall we follow? We are often advised to avoid value judgments---but in fact such judgments are often necessary. Some people make a fine living by listing the five best local restaurants, the five best universities, the best talk-shows, best diets, best new cars, all neatly arranged in linear order.

Much more seriously, consider medical triage. Who gets attention first? The triage canon is based on priorities arrived at by criteria spelled out in considerable detail. The docs go into a quick huddle. Need they, can they, avoid subjective judgments? Is objectivity a will-o'-the-wisp?

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Face it: Decision making can be stressful. Last week, the waitress Dottie asked whether I wanted French, Italian, ranch, or house dressing on my salad. Without forming with my wife a select committee of two, I responded, "the usual"---putting the onus for my happiness on Dottie.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at [email protected].

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