Gatekeeping: A Self-Fulfilling Cycle, Part II

In my first post on gatekeeping, I argued that the academic gatekeeping process,

is a self-fulfilling cycle, based on a narrowly defined playing field that supports and promotes like-minded players who reject those deemed unqualified by the narrow standards that they themselves have devised and from which they have benefitted.

This cycle is driven largely by those who succeed in advancing through the tenure and promotion process. They are the academic leadership.

They are the gatekeepers.

They decide who succeeds and who fails. It is their judgment that is exercised in making and implementing the rules. It is they who decide who gets to play – and not just at tenure, but at numerous other evaluation points along the way, starting with hiring.

Of course, there must be gatekeepers. But because there is so much at stake, we should think very carefully about who they are—and are not—and what we expect from them as they make choices about who wins and who loses in the academy.

Here’s a start, a few of the expectations we might reasonably have of our gatekeepers.

1.Seniority and Experience. First, we might reasonably expect that gatekeepers be among the most senior people in the academy—those who’ve been through the evaluation processes themselves and who have the experience of doing evaluations.We might expect them to be rather sober in their decisions, knowing full well the significant consequences of their judgment.

This is not to say that they shouldn’t make hard decisions, but that the gravity of the decision would reflect the breadth of their experience.

Immediately, the challenge is obvious: only a select few—who, notably, are not a substantively, methodologically, or demographically diverse group—make it to senior status in the academy.

But there are other obstacles to role of seniority and experience in the most important administrative decisions. For example, in the tenure process, it is often the department that plays first, led by the department head or chair who (alone or with senior members of the faculty) establishes the trajectory and tone of the decision-making.

Yet, department chairs don’t necessarily have the seniority or the experience we might hope for someone with such awesome responsibility. Indeed, as most faculty know, the chair is often the sucker who draws the shortest straw.

The Chair at the time of my tenure case was neither particularly senior nor experienced. Instead, he had just recently been tenured himself and became chair just a couple of months before I submitted my dossier. His letter undoubtedly framed and set the tone for the evaluation of my record.

There are other senior players at the university with significant roles to play, not as rubber stamps but to check potential—and arguably inevitable—implicit and explicit biases in decisions. It is quite possible that they all may come to the same outcome in the case, and we know anecdotally that they often do. But, their role is to independently evaluate and provide legitimacy to the final outcome, whether positive or negative. But as my tenure materials reveal, that’s not necessarily how it works.

Reviewers external to the university are another set of gatekeepers who play, at least theoretically, an important part in the decision making process. Usually selected as a function of their seniority and experience, these experts weigh in on the merits of the tenure candidate.

Yet, in my case, their evaluations were all but dismissed. And it seems this is not unusual. Word on the street and in print is that the voice of these gatekeepers matters only if they’re negative. Or, put differently, they’re not considered valuable if they’re positive—at least, that is, for an internally disfavored candidate.

2. Leadership. It should go without saying that personnel decisions should be made by people with leadership skills. And there are some exceptional leaders in political science. But in my experience most of them came by their skills naturally.

The academy doesn’t train leaders, and anyone who’s been part of the selection process for academic administrators knows that demonstrable leadership skills are not a prerequisite for success in getting or performing the job.

We might debate the key elements of leadership—for me, they include clear & honest communication, transparency, responsibility and accountability, and inspiration—but the failure of leadership in my tenure case is obvious, not because I was denied but because of how the leaders exercised their power.

The most obvious failure was the Dean’s in speaking out of both sides of his mouth and doing a 180 in his evaluations of my record. But the Chair was no sterling example of leadership either, in part due to his lack of experience. For many departmental decisions, this may not be problematic. But at times the chair is the gatekeeper who makes career-altering decisions for his/her colleagues, as was true for me.

3. Substantive Knowledge. We might also reasonably expect that gatekeepers have some expertise about the work of the people they’re evaluating.

If the work is teaching, it makes sense that the evaluator would be an experienced teacher, perhaps even an expert in pedagogy, and would know something about how to teach the particular subject matter. And at some institutions, peer review and similar evaluation is used to provide feedback and accountability on teaching.

At many institutions, though, teaching is a secondary consideration in tenure decisions and students provide the gatekeeping function for teaching in the promotion process.

Because research is the fundamental part of tenure and promotion at most institutions, we might expect the evaluators of research be not only experienced researchers themselves, but also experts in the relevant substantive field.

Such expertise often comes from outside the university, the external reviewers whose role it is to be among the gatekeepers who can comment knowledgeably on the intellectual and scholarly merits of the work.

Yet, as I mentioned before, the hitch is that their input is likely perverted to meet desired outcomes. Particularly when their reviews are favorable (on an internally disfavored candidate), their expertise – or at least their word – is questioned and their review relegated to passing (if any) reference in the decision to deny.

Then, the views of internal gatekeepers form the basis of evaluation—even if they have no substantive expertise. My case demonstrates this clearly, as my responses to the Chair and the Dean illustrate.

4. Rules and Standards. Last but not least, gatekeepers should attend to the rules and standards of evaluation. Whatever those are. At minimum, all parties to the decision should be aware of the standards; but more precisely, everyone should know them, as in they should be clear and comprehensible and knowable. They should be predictable.

There are legitimate challenges in writing rules. Beyond the question of who creates them—usually the gatekeepers themselves—there is the very real issue of how specific they should be. The tension around specificity is obvious to anyone who’s been involved in a discussion about what it means to be a scholar in a particular discipline. In my experience, few people desire such rigid rules that no variance in individual cases can be considered. Similarly, ambiguous rules open the system to ad hoc and idiosyncratic determinations.

Surely, there’s a way of establishing standards that guide gatekeepers in making meaningful and defensible decisions without falling prey to flaws of either rigidity or ambiguity. Among many possible steps toward this goal is discipline-specific standards that account for differences in research, teaching, and service requirements.

Yet, faculty manuals often include only a very general set of guidelines about tenure, which are then interpreted and implemented as if they provide specific criterion for advancement. Generic passages like, “evidence of scholarship,” “significant scholarly contributions,” and “other activities that advance the discipline,” provide the appearance of precision but leave the standards completely open to interpretation.

In other words, depending on who the gatekeepers are at any particular time, the standards for being promoted are likely to change. As a result, there may be little that is clear, comprehensible, knowable, or predictable about how and why tenure decisions are made.


And so this short list comes full circle to the self-fulfilling cycle of the academic gatekeeping process. The decisions about who wins and who loses are not necessarily based on merit, but rather on the self-interest and self-importance of those in gatekeeping positions, who guard the gates and allow entry only to those who support their narrow conceptions of success.

The absence of alternative, authoritative voices poses a serious obstacle to individual advancement in the academy, but also to the goal of higher education and the growth of the academy more generally.

The challenge of diversity is not unique to academia. But one need only be socialized as an academic to understand that we often think we’re above or beyond the insularity of other professions and industries.

At a time when higher education is under concerted attack from politicians and others (just a few examples here, here, and here), we would do well to exercise a bit of reflection on the nature of success and failure among our ranks and to think creatively about how to break the self-fulfilling cycle of academic achievement.