January 8, 2013

"Mismatch" and Tenure

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a faculty grievance committee at the University of Southern California has called for the reconsideration of a recent decision to deny tenure to Mai'a K. Davis Cross, an assistant professor of international relations whom the Chronicle states "is of Native Hawaiian and Asian ancestry."  She claims her denial reflects a pattern of discrimination against women and minorities in the university's humanities and social science departments, although the grievance committee's recommendation for reconsideration was based primarily on what it regarded as "procedural defects" of senior administrators contacting scholars outside her discipline for evaluations of her work without prior notice.

There is a spirited debate in the comments to the Chronicle article over Prof. Cross's academic record, with some arguing that it is slam-dunk strong enough to support tenure. I have no opinion about the strength of her qualifications or about whether deans going outside the record before them to solicit additional evaluations is a serious "procedural defect" (there are comments about that as well). What I think is of more general interest is the evidence she presented for her claim of bias. Data that she collected with a political science colleague show that 92 percent of white men who were considered for tenure from 1998 to 2012 in the university's social-sciences and humanities departments were awarded it. That compares with 55 percent of women and professors from minority groups who worked in the same departments during that period. 

Assuming these numbers are accurate and further assuming that the University of Southern California is not a Caltech-like meritocratic outlier and hence that it made great efforts during these years to "diversify" its faculty, is it not possible that the disparate promotion rates of women and minorities reveal not bias but the predictable "mismatch" result of the "diversity" preferences they received when they were hired?

In their "magisterial" book, Mismatch, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., have persuasively documented that when students are admitted to academic programs with much lower qualifications than their peers they cluster at the bottom of their classes, leave the programs at much higher rates, and do demonstrably less well on measures of what they learned such as the bar exam. Whatever Prof. Cross's individual qualifications and accomplishments and whatever steps USC took to "diversity" its faculty, it certainly should not be surprising that any university that did award bonus points (however "holistically" disguised) to women and minority applicants coming in would find much higher percentages of them faring far less well than their competitors for tenure for whom standards were not initially lowered.

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