Monday, November 11, 2013

Destroying Junior Faculty vs. Making Assistant Professor Bloom

In an essay, Andrew Marshall describes RAND Corporation in the 50s and 60s. The staff was quite young, at one point the average age was 28. There was an effort to mentor those younger staff members and encourage them to think more widely and examine problems from different angles. People worked in groups or at least in teams. Some of the problems did not have much of a tradition that one could rely on. Maybe the slightly more senior people were extraordinary, for at that time university jobs were just beginning to open up in number and quality.

Moreover, RAND had may summer visitors, usually the most interesting and powerful minds in their fields. They would help the RAND staff move wide and far, and it seems they benefited as well from the Santa Monica breezes and the RAND  breezes as well.

Econmists were valued just because they knew experts could be wrong (unlike natural scientists, it would seem). Moreover, Wohlstetter was known for extending the range of alternatives if new ones were discovered in the process of evaluating the given set, presumably abandoning others. Marshall believes that those trained in business policy and strategy might well be good strategists in the defense and policy areas. What you need is lots of recurrent questioning, serious questioning, to kick you out of your ruts.

Given what we expect of probationary faculty, we are doing the reverse. They are supposed to work alone, their work has to meet the expectations of their field, and rarely does anyone take charge of them.  It's not a question of whether someone could work alone and exhibit serious work. Rather is this the way to train our faculty for the rest of their careers. Surely it works for some. But say that we wanted to have a much more interesting and leading university. Perhaps we should never hire assistant professors, and only hire associate professors with a total a ten years experience. Or we'd need to figure out how to create communities of scholars where mentoring and senior leadership would enable more junior faculty to bloom.

I don't know the answer. Maybe RAND is no model for anything. It surely helped that there was a demanding client, a client that did not know what it was looking for, and problems that were of enormous import.  Someone must have tried this at some department, or some dean made this happen in their school. I just don't know of any