Saturday, April 02, 2011

More on Academic Communications

UW Madison has responded to the Open Records Request regarding Professor Cronon (which I mentioned here).  Here's a link to the Chancellor's message as well as the response from the UW-Madison legal counsel.  Given the challenging situation the university finds themselves in, my impression (after a quick read of the documents) is that this is a reasoned response, attempting to uphold the principles of academic freedom while following the requirements of the law.

The issue of privacy of academic communications reminds me of the issues I've heard regarding evaluation letters (for promotions, including tenure cases) and confidentiality.  For instance, I've had colleagues tell me they won't write promotion case letters for the UC's, because confidentiality is insufficiently protected there.  Apparently candidates can request to see the contents of evaluation letters.  I have written a letter to a UC for such a case, and their "Confidentiality Statement" was, I must say, uninspiring.  In particular, I was told to put information regarding my relationship to the candidate "below the signature block";  apparently, when the candidate requests the contents of the letters, the letterhead, signature block, and information below the signature block is not revealed to protect the identity of the writer.  That's clearly insufficient, I think, for any reasonable evaluation letter;  it's hard to hide your relationship to someone in a well-written evaluation letters with that framework.  I'm also not clear that it would protect confidentiality in various legal settings (but perhaps nothing would?).  As I had only very nice things to say for the case in question I did not have any concerns, but if that wasn't the case, I might have had to think twice about writing, and I can understand why some would refuse to write letters to the UC on principle.  (Perhaps someone from the UCs -- anonymously or otherwise -- would wish to comment on these policies.)   

Now that I'm on the other side -- requesting letters as Area Dean -- I've seen that some people are very reluctant to write down honest appraisals of candidates, out of concern that information would be leaked somehow.  It's a concern -- we do need open and forthcoming letters to help evaluate faculty accurately -- but it's clear that the issue of how that information is protected is one that will continue to challenge the academic community going forward.  


Luca said...

At the University of California, candidates for promotion are not "allowed" to see their recommendation letters, they are *required* to. At some step in the process (both for my tenure case and my promotion to full professor), I was given a document that contained the report of the ad-hoc committee and copies of all the recommendation letters, and I had to sign a form confirming that I had, in fact, been given the document. I was also given the option to write a rebuttal if I disagreed with something in the report or in the letters.

I believe this is all part of a settlement in a discrimination case brought several years ago by Jenny Harrison, a UC Berkeley Math professor, about her tenure case.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Luca --

I had not know that was the process, and the request for the evaluation (which I went back to check) makes no statement that the evaluation *will* be given to the candidate. (Indeed, it says the "candidate may request" it.)

This, to me, seems an ill-advised policy, and I can understand why people would refuse to provide any letters to the UCs with such a policy.

To be clear, this is not the policy at Harvard. (Especially since we ask for comparisons in our letters.) We state that we'll keep all responses confidential to the extent permitted by law. I've never seen the letters for my tenure case, nor the report of the ad hoc committee, nor anything else related.

Anonymous said...

UW released only emails related to Prof. Cronon's work as a professor, unless those emails related to students, research, or administration. So what did they release?

UCProf said...

I'm a full professor at UC. I dislike the UC policy. I worry it's a spineless move by our lawyers. I think it is ill-advised and sets a bad example for our field.

When I was up for tenure, I was shown all of the recommendation letters: whether I wanted to see them or not, I was automatically shown them all. In 2 or 3 of the letters, I could tell pretty clearly who wrote the letter, without trying to figure out who wrote it (basically, I couldn't not draw the connection; even though I didn't want to know who wrote the letter, it was obvious from the content of the letter and I couldn't avoid it). I felt a little bit dirty, and I tried to wash the knowledge out of my brain.

I love UC. But I can't defend UC's policy in this particular area.