Like most professors, I often serve as an external referee when other universities are deciding whether to promote one of their faculty members. Although I’m glad to take on this important role, one line in the cover letters of some promotion review packets makes me highly uncomfortable: “as part of your review, please inform us whether this candidate would be promoted to the same rank if s/he were at your university”. I fear that this question is neither wise nor fair, for two reasons.

(1) Many Metrics of Professorial Success Vary with Institutional Mission

Diversity of structure and mission is one of the strengths of the ensemble of U.S. universities and matches the needs and aspirations of the diverse population they serve. One institution of higher learning may focus heavily on providing undergraduate education to young people who are the first in the family to go to college, while another focuses more on scholarship and still another on professional education to adults with established careers. What faculty are expected to do, quite appropriately, varies in response to such differences in institutional mission.

Stanford University — or indeed any one university – therefore shouldn’t be taken as the measure of all things in faculty promotion decisions. I was promoted at Stanford but there are other institutions where I would not deserve promotion because I am not very good at the core activities they ask their faculty to undertake. Likewise, someone who would probably not be promoted at Stanford could be the pluperfect professor at another institution with a different mission.

(2) Even for Common Metrics of Success, Opportunities to Achieve Differ Across Institutions

A promotion committee chair might respond to the worries I have just articulated by saying “Yes, institutional missions can vary, but our university values research, for which standardized metrics are available to help external reviewers judge fairly whether our faculty would be promoted at their equally research-oriented university”. Type and impact of peer-reviewed publications, grants garnered and scholarly awards received can indeed be compared from professor to professor and from university to university. But it doesn’t follow that faculty research success perfectly reflects whether promotion is warranted because of the varying opportunities universities offer their professors.

For example, a large, urban university affiliated with a public hospital presents faculty with scholarly challenges and opportunities distinct from those of a small, rural institution affiliated with a state agricultural extension service. More generally, wealthier universities like Stanford can facilitate professor’s research success more than can less fortunate institutions (e.g., by offering protected time for scholarship, high-tech research equipment and larger networks of accomplished colleagues in one’s area).

When I am asked to judge if a faculty member with X level of research success would be promoted at Stanford, the counterfactual hangs in my mind: If they were really at Stanford, might they have received more research opportunities and as a result succeeded at a 2X or 3X or more level? If so, isn’t it unfair to hold them to our standards when they didn’t get the resources my Stanford colleagues and I receive to support our scholarly work?

Institutional Worries About Promotion Standards Shouldn’t Be Tackled Within Individual Cases Anyway

Some people might argue that despite the fact that universities ask different things of their faculty and have differing levels of resources to help faculty achieve, it is still reasonable to ask external promotion referees whether a candidate would be promoted at the referee’s university as a check on community norms, i.e., “Tell us whether our university is holding candidates to widely-accepted promotion standards”.

I don’t buy it.

If a university’s leadership feels that its expectations of faculty are fundamentally wrong-headed or out of step with national trends, that’s certainly a problem worth engaging. But the appropriate place to engage it is absolutely not within the context of promotion decisions about individual faculty who were told when they were hired to meet their own university’s standards rather than someone else’s. If a university is articulating the wrong standards or not providing the resources required to meet them, that’s not the fault of any individual professor, it’s a systemic challenge the administration must take on.

In the meantime, I hope promotion committees will stop asking referees about whether their faculty deserve promotion somewhere else and just worry about whether they deserve promotion where they actually work.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys