Perhaps it is time to replace provosts with algorithms

And all their vice-provosts, too.  

USC has been in a tough time for a bit now,  and without a president, and after the president we did have, who was very hierarchical, we have entered a weird phase where everybody in administration is a bit adrift.  Certainly there is leadership, but mostly, I’m noticing a hardening of the bureaucracy—a frantic, sticking-to-the-handbook, I-didn’t-break-any-rules-so-don’t-purge-me mentality.  The default position—at least in my experience—at the university is always “no” anyway, and it’s just gotten worse. 

Recently, I was thinking about all this when the provost’s office overturned a departmental decision to admit a student into our degree program based on the student’s undergraduate GPA. I had written this student a glowing letter because I have tremendous faith in her; she has a ton of ideas, very creative, super insightful…and a student of color.  GPAs are one metric. When my beloved chair called over to the provost’s office to question the decision, we were told that the office has only granted waivers on the GPA twice in 10 years. 

What the actual …F? 

If you are going to have this decision come down to one number, then please let’s stop it with all the nonsense we put students and faculty through.  Submit a request via a short web form, have the algorthim check the GPA and deliver an instant decision. As it is, we’ve wasted this student’s time and energy, and we wasted *my* time writing a letter of recommendation that clearly means nothing to our provost’s office. 

Seriously, I write letter after letter after letter after letter, trying to help students get opportunities they want. Is anybody besides me reading these things? I write letters for junior faculty seeking tenure. I write letters for associate professors seeking promotion to full.

This sort of ranny-gazoo is all over the academy. The University of Michigan recently disciplined a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to do a study abroad in Israel. Now, I dunno what I think of that professor’s choice.  I am not paternalistic enough to decide what opportunities I’ll support my students in seeking, but that’s me.  But I do know these letters don’t mean a damn thing if university higher-ups are going to disregard them on the one hand and punish professors for saying “no” to writing them on the other. The fact this particular student made such an issue of the refusal to write the letter gives me an abundance of reasons for why a professor might have refused to do so, other than the reason he or she gave.

If students are entitled to study abroad in Israel regardless of what proffies think about the deal, then have the students submit their request through a web form and have an algorithm rubber-stamp it.

Our provost office, like many others, have launched one initiative after another to systematize tenure and promotion decisions, deriving rigid rankings of journals and setting up expectations for how many hits one is supposed to have in those journals. Google scholar cites, ISI rankings, Alymetrics, Bubbametrics, rah rah rah.

The impulse behind making the standards more transparent is not evil.  But I think the endgame, pursued as we seem to be doing, means that even tenure decisions could be made by an algorithm. Think of the lawsuits it would save. 

And provosts are expensive, universities. Plan accordingly.