Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
The Best Way to Not Get Tenure (buffalo.edu)
349 points by panic on Oct 23, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 201 comments

I work in industry, but the key to getting stuff done in a hierarchical organization is tact. I think he is a poor politician, and is clearly very unhappy about being denied tenure. I think putting out feelers and going about a new job more quietly would be more effective.

Hypothetically, let's say you (the person reading this comment) want to make a big change in your organization. You identified a problem, and honestly think the solution is a fundamental change in direction. The incorrect next step is to bring up your opinion in front of the decision makers! This causes strife, anger, embarrassment, negative attention, etc.

The correct plan is to quietly gauge support, get allies, make your case one-on-one, and get things going with multiple stakeholders on board. No one embarrassed, the majority in agreement. Rocking the boat publicly (as this post clearly shows he is OK with) is not the mark of good political skills.

I'd agree that the way to appeal to management is to build relationships & grassroots support in the organization. But the way to appeal to the market (which seems to be his current situation now, since he seems to be looking for a new job) is to make a big splash, take credit for all the things you've done, define yourself in terms of what you'd most like to do, and then wait for the calls to come in.

The difference is on whether the set of people you work with is mutable or immutable. If it's immutable, you better preserve relationships, because you'll be working with them in the future, regardless of what happens, and you need them to implement your plans. But if it's mutable, then when people dislike you, just find new people. Stake out a territory in idea-space, and then just adjust the set of folks you hang out with until everyone agrees with you.

Voice or exit. If you want voice, you've got to speak to what the people around you will hear. If you're willing to exit (or going to anyway), you can say what you want and swap the people out until you find the set who hears you.

Interestingly, the current U.S. presidential race is a perfect example of this. Trump is following the people-are-mutable, if-they-don't-like-you-fuck-'em strategy. He's burning bridges with everyone who criticizes him. And he's probably doing this because it has worked for him in business - when he stiffs a contractor, sexually harasses an employee, or loses an investor's money, there is always somebody else willing to get in line behind them. Clinton, however, is the consummate relationship builder. She's carefully worked across the aisle through decades of experience in Washington, such that she's got all the really important people supporting her. Trump's strategy works great at rallies, where he can speak only to the people who agree with him, but fails across the entire electorate, where he has to deal with a pre-existing composition that isn't going anywhere.

> is to make a big splash, take credit for all the things you've done, define yourself in terms of what you'd most like to do, and then wait for the calls to come in.

I absolutely agree with this. At the same time, you should attempt to downplay the fact that the current set of people you work with found you such a massive pain in the arse that they didn't want you to stay.

The guy's accomplishments look impressive. He should concentrate on those.

The specifics of politics aside, I think there's always going to be a segment of the population that has total distaste and disdain for the homo politicus way of doing things. Every organization needs these people in order to counteract group think.

In the academic context I believe the set of people should be considered to be immutable, especially given small, specialized communities. When he goes on the market again, this post will be available for all to see, and the perception that he is problematic will follow.

The group of people you're working with may not be as mutable as you think. I've been working in my programming language community in the city where I live for about ten years. There are people I have worked with before at pretty much all the really attractive places that do the language I have the most expertise with. Probably people who know people I've worked with at many of the others too.

The group seems pretty mutable be me.

Right now I work in Germany, writing in C++, the language I have greatest expertise in (except maybe C, where my epertise is all in hobby projects).

My professional goal is to work in Australia, preferably in any langauge other than C++.

This also explains how Trump increased republican primary turnout while upsetting republicans. It's not that there are more trumpists than traditional republicans (the general election is proving that). It's that just that Trump did have plenty of support from outside the party that he could pull into the primary.

I think this is stated in a factually misleading / inaccurate way.

The vast majority of Trump voters are “traditional Republican” voters, at least in general elections. Many were folks who usually only turned out to vote in the general election, but not in the primary. In other words, they were expanding the pool of Republican primary voters, but not significantly expanding the pool of general election Republicans from “outise the party”.

Just to get back on track.. Faculty positions are very hard to fill.

As a tenured professor in a department looking exactly for this type of "Hacking Professor" I can tell you it may take a year to find talent. Positions in Europe might be even harder to fill. Advantage of our "biking distance from Amsterdam" culture is that anti-establishment mentality and non-conformist hear style of professors is acceptable. Quality research and teaching counts. We have an official CS class called "the Hacking Lab".

<shameless promotion> Any Associated or Assistant Professors out there with experimental background, please click: https://www.academictransfer.com/employer/TUD/vacancy/36681/...

It's also how Corbyn has an iron grip on the Labour Party without the support of most Labour MPs.

Indeed it looks like the Labour rank and file is intentionally doing to its own Party what Labour did to the Liberals a century ago.

Historians please weigh in: Is there any evidence that the Whigs also volunteered in their own destruction?

It did. The situation in the 1850s was actually very similar (party-wise) to now. The Whigs fell apart over slavery; the Northern anti-slavery wing blocked the nomination of incumbent Millard Fillmore. Northern Whigs rallied to the newly-created Republican party (with an anti-slavery platform), while what was left of the Southern Whigs formed the Know-Nothing party (with an anti-immigration platform). The Know-Nothings ran Millard Fillmore again as their candidate in 1856, then joined with Southern Democrats who were against secession to form the Constitutional Union party in 1860.

The Democrats themselves fell apart in 1860, splitting into Northern and Southern Democrats (running Douglas and Breckinridge, respectively). The split in the Democratic vote meant that Douglas (who was the second-highest popular vote getter) got the electoral votes of only one state, Missouri. This in turn meant that Abraham Lincoln, who wasn't even on the ballot in most Southern states, was able to carry the election, despite a popular vote count < 40% and net favorability ratings that were probably lower than Trump. This led directly to the Civil War.

>take credit for all the things you've done

Might sound corny but -there is no I in team -. Great leaders bring change by assembling great teams where everyone gets their time to shine and don't take the credit for it. Everyone wins.

>and don't take credit for it

While it is certainly distasteful when someone takes credit for something that they had no involvement in, I would argue that it's also possible to too far in the other direction. All too many programmers (myself included!) won't take credit for anything unless they did 100% of the work. Well, as I'm slowly learning, it is possible to be nuanced. It is possible to take partial credit and to understand that saying that you led an effort doesn't automatically mean that you did 100% of the work.

Part of being a leader is convincing other people to listen to you. A very good way of doing that is to be able to point to publicly recorded instances where you've taken leadership in the past and delivered good results. If you don't take credit as a leader, you'll very soon find yourself displaced (for better or worse) by someone who does.

Great leaders bring change by assembling great teams where everyone gets their time to shine and don't take the credit for it.

Yes and no. Let's say your team has pulled off a major coup. As a (good) manager you very publicly say that all the credit belongs to the team. The team are happy and they love you. But the power players understand your real message.

This suggests that management is a duplicitous role. It shouldn't be. You publicly praise those who deserve it. You privately (i.e. in interviews) explain your personal involvement.

While this is true, senior job applicants are expected to be very explicit about their achievements. Instead of saying "my team completed the project on time and under budget" they'd say "I identified stakeholders, negotiated timescales, and personally managed a budget of x million", for example.

"I bought change by assembling great teams and ensured that everyone got their time their time to shine".

You know it seems obvious to you but I spend the last 10 years on the job knowing absolutely nothing about this. I'm a programmer and I have good social skills. As a trainer, talking in public comes naturally, as a team leader, I'm also quite good in conducting meetings and driving the team efforts.

But I have ZERO political skills, and I couldn't understand why.

Reading your comment is like finally getting the missing link. I never realized this was the basics of politics. I mean, I knew good politician did it, I saw them doing it among other things, but I could not comprehend it was the essence of it. No joking. Now I understand many things much better.

It may seems nothing to you, but you actually made my day.

And this is something that should be explained to more technical minded people, because otherwise, you can get very frustrated when you can't manage to influence things with good intentions in mind and a detrimental approach, while others seems to make it happen naturally.

Well, I guess now I have to practice a lot to get better at it. Seems a lot of work.

Agreed. Being political is a ton of work. I find doing what OP suggests, which amounts to silently taking responsibility for other people's feelings instead of openly communicating about them, to be taxing as hell. Putting on an emotional mask usually is.

Being "political" in this sense is a codependent behavior.

Instead of operating out of fear of others' reactions, I prefer to give people the space they need to feel their anger, embarrassment, etc. by checking in with them over how they feel & empathizing with them.

I'll also agree with OP that approaching people 1-on-1 about big changes is much easier than putting someone on the spot to be open about & own their emotions in front of a group of people. The group's likely been trained to "act professional" by hiding their emotions as opposed to being professional by producing quality work. Sadly, that's not the sort of culture typically found in a business.

The last engineer I worked with taught me a similar lesson after one of our last meetings: "You lost the moment you became emotional. Don't ever let people see your feelings in a meeting like that."

He was right about one thing: a group of "professionals" hates emotions. Go find a group of emotionally mature adults to work with & work on your own emotional maturity. Here are some hints for how to work on yourself that also acts as a list of mindsets to spot in others:

- nobody makes you feel anything - you have a choice how to respond emotionally to all thing, though the amount of time your brain gives you to spot the choice may be unnoticeably small - that spot can grow with practice (mindfulness meditation) - whatever you're feeling in the moment is ok...you're allowed to feel it - unpleasant feelings signal a fundamental human need going unmet...find the need & address/accommodate it - everyone's doing the best they can and always have been...if someone isn't doing the best they can, the real culprit is you not accepting someone - own your feelings...don't defend them, especially by blaming them on other people. - apply all of this to every single person, including the worst of people. - read "Nonviolent Communication" https://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Lif...

"Agreed. Being political is a ton of work"

Being political it's so much work that most people, in high places, in big organizations, barely do anything else.

> Being political it's so much work that most people, in high places, in big organizations, barely do anything else.

Time for disruption. Dear hackers: Find a way how one can automate at least large parts of this by a computer program. :-)

I suspect something I came up with a few days ago would address this. It's based on the concept in this video: nxhx.org/maximizing/

The guy in the video suggests companies collect users' reasons for using products/services & feelings around those reasons. Companies would then be able to choose which reasons to design for.

The thinking goes like this: Right now, companies use metrics based on how much things cost in terms of time/money/attention. Those are abstractions on top of our reasons, so if companies can create a system to directly measure our reasons, those more meaningful metrics will allow them to produce better products.

That idea doesn't get rid of the politics in companies...unless you remove the company from the equation when collecting user reasons.

My idea is to build a public blockchain-based system for collecting those reasons publicly & anonymously. If every company has a public user-generated set of reasons for using their product & whether or not the product is a good choice for fulfilling those reasons, the internal debate changes to which reasons should they choose to fulfill. Arguing over whether this or that change better fulfills this or that reason would be silly because testing the idea is the only thing that makes sense.

There'll still be politics around funding tests, among other things, because political people aren't just going to change how they act overnight, but I'm betting this system will give them far less to play with.

Or do what I do, express yourself like a human instead of a business machine, leave, go do the rejected right thing for a competitor, and send the product brochure to the people who cared more about their feelings than the work.

You have to be willing to do a lot of walking away, but the inevitable "you were right" has been satisfying so far.

Or I guess another way to say it is if you can, do, and if you can't, by all means, coddle. Just hope I don't end up across the table from you.

This is super passive aggressive, like a child saying "I'm leaving, you will miss me guys, you'll be sorry, you'll see I was right and I'll be the one laughting !".

Besides, this assumes people rejecting your idea are bad, while they are just being humans. Humans are weak unefficient creatures, it's no use to take offense in it, we all are weaks in some areas.

> Humans are weak unefficient creatures, it's no use to take offense in it, we all are weaks in some areas.

But it is correct to take offense about people in position who command about things they are weak in.

Or you could accept the situation for what it is: blind ignorance on the part of a leader. Then you can merrily do whatever's best for you without carrying around anger toward them.

Choosing to get offended is rarely a quick path to healthy productivity.

There's some really valuable truths in what you said. It takes years to discover, learn and master that and many people never come close to achieving those skills.

This is the kind of thing you learn by hard knocks or by a really caring mentor.

That last one (reading "Nonviolent Communication"...several times in the span of a few months) directly led to the rest of the things.

It's easily the most important book I've ever read.

The highest-marginal-return skill to practice, in my experience, is to figure out where the mutual benefit in any arrangement is, and PRESENT THAT FIRST to each party involved. If it seems like things magically improve whenever you show up, most of the other issues go away.

Also, ensure that whatever you do makes your "superiors" look better, but make goddamned sure that it reflects their cleverness in choosing YOU for the job. If you're in academia and you write 99% of a grant that gets funded, put it on your CV. If you write a contract or a proposal that makes the company $5m, put it on your resume. Don't ever expect anyone to give you credit -- take it, and then thank whoever would logically be obligated to give it for their gracious acknowledgement. People seldom do what they know to be right -- they do what is convenient, then repent. So make it convenient for people to do the right thing for you.

Make it easy for people to appreciate your value and hard to fault your shortcomings. It goes a long, long way. If you can't do that, maybe look for a position where it will be easier for you to execute this task.

Good luck! You will be a happier person if you do this.

The problem with this approach is that it's tricky to take credit for when you get your way because you've done it so quietly. You have to have an organization and leadership that is wise enough to recognize what you've done.

On the upside, you will not get blamed when your move turns out to be wrong :)

you get the agreement quietly, such that when you speak publicly there is a general agreement on the statements you make in the group. hence you do get credit.

also note that if you (need to) push an idea, you shouldn't be the only one pushing it. You should prevent the idea becoming tied to you as person.

Some people will just disapprove the idea because of the fact that it comes from you (instead of judging it by its merits).

You are absolutely correct.

The fact and reality that you are absolutely correct is a HUGE PART of the ENTIRE REASON why software startups so frequently outperform large incumbent companies with greater resources, support, investment, and time. Because while the software startup is messily, irritatingly, often horribly dealing with its people issues, it creates pods of productivity, small, coherent groups that work well together and make things happen without the need to wait until the lunch next Tuesday to gauge incumbent X's support for proposition Y before presenting proposition Y at gathering Z five weeks from now. In a successful startup, someone screams, "EUREKA!" summons one or two other minds from the team to a rickety little conference room, elaborates the idea to make sure he/she isn't missing anything obvious, and then starts working on it, possibly being finished by the end of a two-week sprint. What takes the incumbent organization MONTHS of political angling happens in these small, fluid organizations in WEEKS - or less!

I'm really quite glad your analysis is correct, because it creates massive opportunities for guys like me, who trend a bit on the abrasive side now and then, but it also discourages me as to the correct course of action to get any already-existibg institution into fighting shape. Is it potentially literally impossible under average circumstances? I worry it genuinely might be, and that creation of new institutionsay be the only answer, but that answer makes me very sad for some reason.

You're aware of "forming, storming, norming..." etc? It's a well-recognised problem. Smaller "abrasive" teams are very off-putting to some people; larger bureaucratic organisation are equally off-putting to others.

I suspect no one structure is optimal for all contexts.

Have a look at the design of the new Crick Institute in London, designed for serendipity. Or Facebook's attempt at an open plan office (probably not a great example, but you see the idea). Maybe even Taleb's ideas about anti-fragility (despite my finding him a terrible, turgid author).

> I suspect no one structure is optimal for all contexts.

I would rather assume "no one structure is optimal for all people".

Agree with that.

He set out to improve things, which is a good goal. Improving means criticizing the status quo at some level. In case of academia, with tenured people lingering there for life, status quo is probably the result of their work (for better or for worse). Wanting to "improve" that was probably perceived as an insult something like "what you did before sucks, I'll make it better". Unless he was dealing with unusually rational colleagues, that stuff is never forgotten and surfaces at voting times.

But also playing devil's advocate here. It could also be that this is a "well the grapes are too sour anyway" type story. That is, maybe his research wasn't seen as very good, innovative or interesting to deserve a tenure. Maybe he knew it too so set out to instead focus on teaching and other aspects. I've seen people do that. Can't code so they become really strong proponents of documenting everything, or they look for other busy work to justify their salary. That is not necessarily all bad or wrong, but it is interesting to consider here. We haven't really heard from other side so to speak.

multiple NSF grants and multiple papers in top conferences - his research IS good, innovative and interesting. Also, a majority of the external letter writers had positive things to say.

Makes sense. So it does seem like backstabbing or personal issues got in the way.

It is good this blog post got written. Can't imagine it would reflect well on the department overall in the future.

Some people simply aren't politicians and will NEVER have any "tact", nor could they look themselves in the mirror if they faked it.

My suggestion to them is to start their own business or find one to work for (with a willing owner) that needs its core rocked or is full of straight-talkers.

We shouldn't typecast ourselves for a paycheck of it leads to misery.

Yes! So many people think because they are meek, everyone shall be meek, yet they are not the ones that achieve high performance. You might not be compatible with lower levels of performance when there are titles and honors given for meekly punching a ticket long enough and vis versa. I think he did exactly the right thing and would encourage others to do the same if an environment is compressing their thought and expression. Find your space, your people, and be great.

A good suggestion, although we should not wish to wholly abandon responsibility for the effects of our words on others.

I wonder if there is any professional psychology on this kind of thing (link me!) but my layman observation is that most organizations tend toward median smoothing at best or lowest common denominator at worst for performance. That is of course not how you achieve high performance. But high performance scares lower performance, the conflict is bidirectional. From the article it's pretty obvious he was a high performer. High performance means having opinions. Opinions are contestable, and create conflict. Conflict is part of a high performance organization. Lower performers are terrified of conflict with higher performers. Therefore median and lowest common denominator organizations force high performers out. It's kind of ridiculous to think about that happening in academia, but today I learned!

When you switch to the arts and sports we LOVE to see extreme outliers and go to great lengths to assemble and prop them up. It's visceral excitement to see 320lb freaks of nature face off on a line of scrimmage in an NFL game. It would be cruel to have them face off against a highschool team or even just mix them in on the same line. Yet that kind of disparity happens all the time in other types of human assembly.

So I look at this from the other side. He did his deed at the University, made a mark, and got rejected for having high impact good, neutral, or bad. Some people were uncomfortable with high performance for reasons which could range from pettiness to valid criticism.

What you would call lack of tact I might call integrity. I am sure he will land somewhere else and do great things. Industry is more fluid and amenable to assembling high performance, especially in startups.

It's just tough to say whether he was truly "high impact" from his own article, giving his own opinions. Perhaps the research wasn't that good, perhaps the classes weren't that amazing. I don't know. Regardless, no one wants to work with someone who thinks they are god's gift to the world, even if they are! Which is where political / people / social skills can help immensely in avoiding career ending mistakes.

I was basing that after watching a few of these after reading the article where it is linked: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLk97mPCd8nvbxGGfkYkBX.... I would have loved to had someone explain all these relevant things so clearly. I learned some stuff just from watching the few now even though I am a very senior internet person in industrial terms.

I did CS a rather strange way via military college so that's not the best sample, but when I took a programming languages class over the summer at Arizona State they had 300 students (yes really) in the lecture hall trying to learn C, C++, Scheme, and Prolog for the Sophomore/Junior level course. It was a total shit show, and if that had been my path to earning a degree and becoming a programmer I'd have hightailed it out of college. It's also an obvious head drop for diversity in the field. I've heard similar horror stories from colleagues from non-top tier CS schools. I'm inclined to believe he found and addressed problems, and had demonstrable success.

While you're 100% right, the key word to me here is "hierarchical organization" - and I remember my history teacher, the best I've ever had. She was demanding, on fire all the time - and most of other students and teachers hated her, but she was just extremely passionate and uncompromising, teaching from first principles (I've never learned as much from a teacher while in school). This tends to set mediocre people off, and she got really bitter in the end. All the skills OP is showing make him a bad fit for large places full of B and C people (i.e. all of academia and corporations) - while his healthy self-esteem, passion, a learning and teaching spirit, great writing, aspiration and the drive for simplicity and good UX (like in his courses) make him a perfect fit as a founder or early startup employee. He should be prepared to fight an uphill battle if he tries to stay in academia full time. If I were him, I'd try to do an industry career first before returning to teaching, I'm going down that route as well. Even my all-time hero of academia Feynman helped build the atomic bomb before returning to teaching first semesters.

I think no matter how good you are, you need to have people skills. You may be the best there is for this moment in time, but there's always someone better. And besides, you usually need a lot of people to do something sustaining.

" I think he is a poor politician, and is clearly very unhappy about being denied tenure."

Paul Graham, Why Nerds are Unpopular: http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

Though not closely related the read was pretty good.

Corporate analogies don't really translate well to academia.

There's no corporate equivalent to "Tenure" whereby a company says "We guarantee you a position for life" (Fellow roles excluded).

Your point is sound. So is his.

A change requires orientation, energy, and whatever RoI. This guy - as he describes himself subjectively - is all about engaging his own energy. Orientation is essential and is expected to come from managers (dynamics). Managers also choose a strategy that improves the RoI (kinetics). Engagement is nevertheless absolutely essential to make change happen IRL (work). That's a pity an agreement couldn't be found with his managers. It seems there's kinda misunderstanding going on here, that should have been managed appropriately.

We can carry this a bit further. How does someone lacking these skills deal with students? I don't know all the details of his case, but I wonder how he handled grading inquiries and disputes with students, and how willing he was to adjust his teaching to meet the needs of the students.

And just to be clear, I'm well aware of claims (right or wrong) that teaching doesn't matter, but this is different from student evaluations of teaching.

The conversation seems to have drifted to a premise that when the other faculty didn't agree with him he called them morons. But the only basis for that is that he is being outspoken now. His contention is that simply by trying to be innovative and contributing is ways that might make other faculty look (deservedly) bad, he was punished.

The tenure vote he describes reminds me of the Blanket Party scene in Full Metal Jacket (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCNqKrX1sx8), and I think it is the same lesson: conform or suffer the consequences.

I had a boss years ago who said it best.

Never ask a question of decision maker type people when you don't know the answer already.

I have another rule, along similar lines: Never introduce new information at a meeting.

We tend to decry "politics" as a dirty thing, and I'm no great fan of dysfunctional organizations. But even among bright, innovative people, I've observed what I think is the root cause of your rule:

Most people, especially managers, really don't like to debate and negotiate in front of an audience.

I'm like that myself. I think (could be wishful thinking of course) that I'm a high performer. But I'm a terrible debater. I'm not quick with facts, and I don't handle the emotional pressure of debate very well. I'd probably flunk a coding interview. I prefer to sit down and think something through, and to access the information that might not have been presented by the debaters. And in any event, I've noticed that most conclusions reached through debate in meetings are simply overturned by facts later on.

I agree. I also believe there are other good reasons for this rule. Imagine : 15 minute whiteboard workshop - "capturing value from meetings". We draw a horizontal line on the board, a relative value scale, lower to the left, higher to the right. Then we shout out a bunch of stuff people do in meetings, write them post it notes and try and arrange them on the scale. Once the stream starts drying up, draw a vertical line in the middle of the scale. It will now be reasonably obvious that what's clustered on the left can be loosely categorised as 'shit you could have emailed me' and what's clustered at the right as 'spontaneous interaction of informed participants'. Likely you can now demonstrate that stuff at the left - despite perhaps having intrinsically high value - is likely subtracting value in the context of a meeting. If you have good intuitions or hard data on time and travel, you can probably come up with a cost estimate.

I recommend trying this exercise with real people with the caveats that a) some of them will become angry, and b) probably most of them will ignore the outcomes unless you have some way of incentivising them not to.

These two comments are great! Thanks!

Does not the requirement to match the politics of a workplace raise the bar too high, for a profession like university professor?

I am not saying that it is incorrect; but in the background of demands by multiple people inside a university, his actions - as described by him - do not seem to be so significant.

Plus, the academic job search/ tenure process is supposed to be a two-way thing (as any job search, I suppose). The university thinks about whether they want to hire you, and you think about whether you want to work with/ will get on with the people in the department. Tenure then comes down to being an accepted member of the community (among other thinngs).

There's a book about this: Leading Quietly.

Absolutely! And to be really good at this you need to learn to be tactful and diplomatic in all aspects of your life. Live and brief this philosophy towards all of your interactions with others. Become a politician.

That's very good insight. Do you know of any good books or resources on this topic?

> the key to getting stuff done in a hierarchical organization is tact. I think he was a poor politician

> Rocking the boat publicly (as this post clearly shows he is OK with) is not the mark of good political skills.

You're not wrong.

However shouldn't we be asking ourselves why we are requiring such skills?

The truth is that being a good politician has an inverse relationship with being a geek.

Peter Thiel has been pointing this out for many years. He asks, do we really have scientists anymore? Or are they really bureaucrats and politicians pretending to be scientists?

I am convinced it is the latter. I think we have whole universities filled with cargo cult science.

This relates neatly with some awkward facts about the modern education system.

For all the extraordinary efforts and feats of intellectual prowess it is also extraordinary how little they practically achieve. The number of breakthroughs has dramatically declined. Once you get past the PR bullshit and backslapping there is very little actually happening in many places in the 'innovation economy'.

Take nanotech. I am not aware of any advances that make their appearance in a consumer's home. I can think only of a handful of niche applications like expensive hydrophobic coatings. If the advances were occurring in the factories we should be seeing more refined low cost goods on a massive scale. Is that actually happening? I don't know that it is. We've been promised a lot and been waiting for long time.

Take biotech. Nothing. Just nothing. I think the last biotechnology I interacted with was a yogurt. Can anybody name a single biotech invention or innovation that actually exists in people's houses? In the 50s and 60s we had the Green Revolution, that counts. However the price of food has been rising considerably for several years now. There is certainly no food product that I consume that has become much cheaper.

The discovery of DNA is at least half a century ago. Despite much fanfare about CRISPR, why should we be sure that this time biologists are bringing home the bacon? Is anybody willing to bet that in ten years time there will be GM cool pets, much cheaper food, much cheaper quality wood for building from GM trees? I would not take that bet.

What about energy? Willing to bet your energy bills get much lower in the future?

tldr; Maybe a whole lot of people are totally full of shit. The basic metric of progress is that things get cheaper, but they're not, so it isn't happening. If you're not willing to bet that prices decrease then maybe your confidence in the future of invention/innovation is misplaced.

Being a good manager means managing people. Dealing with people is easier when you have strong people skills. Conversely, if you put someone who has a toxic personality in charge of an organization, you might destroy the organization.

Again, I'm not saying anything about his talent, because it's impossible to know without hearing all sides, which I seriously doubt will happen. I'm saying that the article, his opinions, his actions, and from what his version of events are, is sending signals that he cannot get along with his superiors / peers in a way that is mutually constructive and beneficial.

Honestly, industry might be better for him, if he can find a benefactor willing to finance his research. But academia is petty and political, and from what I'm reading, his odds don't look good.

> But academia is petty and political, and from what I'm reading, his odds don't look good.

Yes, he should recalibrate his ideas of why he wanted to work in academia.

Today if you want to get ahead you need a patron and some people who know enough to bounce ideas off them.

I think it increasingly the case that universities are the worst place to send a real intellectual. Some of the most useless people in the world are respected here.

I've been to one, I'll say what I think. I think most university people are posers. Completely unfit. Institutionalized.

Then they are requested to perform. And they cannot. They like are those plants specialized to perform only in a certain Alpine microclimate.

Result: psychological sickness and poor pay. Employers don't know what to do with these people. And society insists on manufacturing more of them. It's a sick system, and it is best to get out while you're still honest.

At least before Bayh-Dole, the job of universities was not productizing things, but fundamental research.

I read the whole article and it's very hard to judge the correctness of most of the article's claims. Most importantly, it's hard to judge the most important thing: the author's own research.

However, I can say that there are different ways to interpret things. The author sees tenure as a way to establish obedience to the unwritten rules of the department. Based on my knowledge of academia, including friends who were granted tenure, the process is mostly fair, but of course most people are going to want to do everything they can to maximize their chances. What the author interprets as proving obedience, I interpret as not wasting time on things the committee can't measure objectively, or doing things that might piss off people on the committee.

As someone in industry, I see academia as somewhere where people can make immense contributions to human knowledge, that cannot be done elsewhere, but they have to jump through certain hoops to do so. Outside of academia there is very little opportunity to do research. Industry is conservative, and prefers to implement and refine known techniques.

I agree with this. But research isn't everything. And there are at least some hints and signs that this person doesn't know how to get along with colleagues.

> I worked really hard to bring an exciting and rigorous operating systems class to UB.

Why did this effort require working "really hard"? Was it because of obstructionist, jealous, or stupid colleagues? Or people who wanted a boring and unrigourous course instead? Or were there perhaps legitimate reasons why others didn't want to change the existing course?

> I led a complete overhaul of our department’s undergraduate computer science curriculum. It includes two new exciting introductory programming courses that I spent a great deal of time designing.

Let me guess: the existing curriculum was terrible, boring, not at all rigorous, and there was no reason to keep any of it, and the author made sure everyone knew it. And why did the author have to spend a great deal of time? Because no one else in the department was capable of doing as good a job? Because nobody else could comprehend this grand vision?

Everything listed under "speaking out" gives me the same vibe. It doesn't seem to have crossed this person's mind that there are reasons why other people have different approaches to teaching, research, administration, hiring, etc., beyond others being obstructionist, brainwashed, or just stupid. I'm reminded of the parable reminding us [1] to not take down a fence until we have truly understood why the fence was erected in the first place.

And really... bringing a dog to work in violation of a clearly stated campus policy, repeatedly, even after having been warned, then encouraging a student petition and getting your name in a local paper about the incident? That's just asking for trouble.

(Full disclosure: I'm coming up for tenure myself, and one lesson it has taken me 5 years to understand is that people who disagree with me on campus aren't doing so out of spite, stupidity, or carelessness, they often just have different priorities than I do. Just because our department absolutely needs more resources to do a good job handling our rapidly growing student population, doesn't mean the college should make this a priority over other things.)

[1] http://www.chesterton.org/taking-a-fence-down/

> Why did this effort require working "really hard"? Was it because of obstructionist, jealous, or stupid colleagues?

I was one of the students at UB while this took place. It took a lot of effort, partially because the rewriting involved a lot of student feedback and there was also a massive e-mail discussion (accidentally?) sent to the entire computer science undergraduate mailing list of one of the senior faculty chastizing a more junior faculty over how student feedback was used in remaking the program.

I can't say for anything else (including the dog situation, since I know other faculty in other departments also bring their pets to school), but I know there was some severe and public obstruction from senior faculty to more junior faculty going on during the remaking.

I am very thankful to be in a department with almost zero nasty internal politics, and I've heard real horror stories from people I trust about how nasty things can get.

So thanks for providing more context. It's hard to tell from the post whether this person is the cause of or recipient of all this drama. From the way he tells it, it wasn't just the department, but pretty much everyone he interacted with across campus. It wouldn't surprise me if the entire university was poisoned by nasty politics, but it also wouldn't surprise me if a self-assessed superstar would see it that way even if it were not.

Mind you I don't really know the rest of the "behind closed doors" stuff, so I can't tell if this is just a one-off chastizement or if this was a system-wide thing. I have heard of some broader school-wide drama associated with funding; in fact, more than one computer science professor had expressed concerns through personal blogs regarding the overhead taken from funding for research when I attended. So I don't think these concerns are necessarily unfounded or written by a wannabe superstar.

> Full disclosure: I'm coming up for tenure myself, and one lesson it has taken me 5 years to understand is that people who disagree with me on campus aren't doing so out of spite, stupidity, or carelessness, they often just have different priorities than I do

In my experience, one problem is that the priorities are frequently rooted in the self-interest of powerful PIs or staff and are to the detriment of the department / university as a whole. As a staff scientist working on many different types of projects, I frequently bump up against stupid problems which should be fixed at a university level. At one point, I tried spear heading a number of these projects (creation of a central index of core facilities and support services for our university so people can actually find resources efficiently, centralized billing and training services for shared facilities across departments, secure storage and an EMR for investigators working with patient information).

All of these projects failed to launch for selfish reasons:

central index: powerful PIs feared discovery of their private core labs which they were abusing; core labs feared institute-level data would lead to institute wide optimization and loss of local control.

centralized billing: financial admins feared loss of control and had job security issues

centralized training: core labs feared loss of control

secure storage and EMR: PIs thought this was too inconvenient, preferred leaving shit on external hard drives with no access control. Feared if this were created they would be forced to use it.

I don't ever try to fix anything now beyond the lab level, and even that is frequently challenging.

I've also seen two talented investigators passed by for tenure in our department because my PI is powerful and other PIs fear that having another person from our lab in the department will further consolidate power in my PI's hands. Our department recently spent an enormous amount of money renovating a single floor in our aging building. That floor had the departmental chair's lab on it. In my experience, academia is full of people who for the most part are in it for themselves and have no interest in improving the situation of the group / lab / department / university as a whole.

I'm sorry but I suspect your deeply, deeply wrong and your work will damage your university. Everything you talk about is about centralising knowledge and control.

In practice, this never helps in the business of getting experiments done. Students and postdocs just pend some time doing pointless training courses, overheads increase, lead-times for ordering equiment increase. And to what purpose?

> Everything you talk about is about centralising knowledge and control. In practice, this never helps in the business of getting experiments done

We have researchers that literally cannot get work done efficiently because they don't know that core labs exist on campus to serve them, and labs that spend tens of thousands to buy instruments that they seldom use for the same reasons. At a department level (let alone an institute level), we have no idea what instruments or services people need, and no usage statistics for instruments that we already have. This means that it is likely that shared facilities are sub-optimally serving the community as a whole, and labs are buying multiple copies of the same pieces of equipment when one unit could do if it were shared. The lack of central indexing also means that most labs have no idea what other labs are working on, which hinders collaboration.

For training, right now EACH core lab forces researchers to do similar training courses for the same instruments; there is no way to prove you know how to use an instrument without taking each course. Similarly, every core lab employs different billing software which financial admins / lab admins have to sign up for and deal with.

How is this at all productive or efficient for anyone? If you were to suggest a similar setup for interacting business units, you would literally be laughed out of the room at a company.

The reason people like this current system is precisely because it's inefficient and confusing. This makes it difficult to regulate at a high level and makes it ripe for abuse by powerful people.

This is why million dollar fines for HIPPA violations are a thing. Surprised that even said penalties wouldn't change things.

Some people are extremely allergic to dogs, and not just when the dog is in the room; dog dander sticks around in a room for a very long time.

Policies to keep pets out of certain spaces isn't because of a lack of a fun environment, but looking out for some people's sensitivities.

The unofficial open dog door policy at my school was rescinded after the chairman found a puddle of vomit in the elevator. While escorting visitors. Twice.

I like dogs, just not at work.

> people who disagree with me [...] aren't doing so out of spite, stupidity, or carelessness, they often just have different priorities than I do

This is an interesting perspective that I'd like to try. Thanks for sharing.

You might find the techniques of Action Science helpful in adopting that framing: http://www.meetup.com/London-Action-Science-Meetup/pages/193...

It't a really powerful perspective, but when you do it, make sure that you actually do respect the people around you. And that you can remain true to yourself in the process. Empathy changes a person (if you're doing it right); make sure that you're changing in a way that you want to change.

That's what "politics" is: how people resolve conflicting priorities and opinions. Not all of it is wildly functional, but there isn't an alternative.

It's not clear to me whether the curriculum work as all his vision or whether that was a fight, or he simply felt that others didn't view it as something helpful to his tenure case. It's not even clear whether it was all his vision or whether he was mostly trying to volunteer to lead the effort.

Every department is different, but I've definitely seen cases where the expectation is that you wait until you have tenure to participate in some changes or take on service work.

You're absolutely right about respecting others, but from his perspective others in the department also should at least listen to him, so it's hard to say whether "speaking out" is fighting or just trying to voice what he believes - which he should do if he does believe it would be helpful. (Doesn't mean he has to "win", but stopping speaking out or questioning things leads to problems.)

> Everything listed under "speaking out" gives me the same vibe. > then encouraging a student petition and getting your name in a local paper about the incident? That's just asking for trouble.

On the whole, it sounds like there's a clear view he's "loud" about his work, and this sounds like the biggest probem.

I share your doubts. But not your suspicions.

You see, I expect univeristies to prefer boring, non rigorous courses, because more students can do them. When I was an undgerad, I could see that my own course was duller and less rigorous than that of my seniors, but more interesting and and rigrorous than those of my juniors.

Why should the trend be different now?

>What the author interprets as proving obedience, I interpret as not wasting time on things the committee can't measure objectively, or doing things that might piss off people on the committee.

I'd be astonished if any academic committee in any university anywhere in the world had any idea how to measure the value of research objectively.

As for not pissing people off - I'd imagine it's impossibly hard to do truly original research without pissing at least some people off. There will be petty jealousies, back-biting, gossip, and all the usual nonsense. Too much, too soon, and hackles will be raised.

It's very sad. Academia seems to have become stifling rather than expansive.

My working definition of organisational dysfunction is when politics and status become primary motivators, and quality of output - and pride in that quality - become secondary.

From the outside, that seems more true of academia now than it should be.

Yep. The academic job market is mind bogglingly brutal, meaning that academic departments have no reason to go out on any limbs. As a result hiring and tenure processes are extremely conservative and, as the author points out, normative.

I completely sympathize with the author; the promise of such shenanigans in the academic career path were part of my motivation for passing a job offer and instead take a software engineering job.

> I see academia as somewhere where people can make immense contributions to human knowledge

The problem is just like the industry (or even more so), academia is plagued with infighting, personal vendettas, skewed incentives and lots of politics.

I think many believe academia is more pure, more rational and calm environment where it is all sharing, and peaceful pursuit of knowledge and so on. The reality is very different from it.

> but they have to jump through certain hoops to do so

The hoops are part of the problems. It seems he cared for focused more on teaching and administration instead of sucking up to other faculty or just cranking out publications like crazy.

The most important bit is probably him trying to improve things.

Improving things mean undoing something that is already there. Due to tenure and length of time people with tenure hang around in academia, the status quo was established by many of the tenured people there. Saying "I want to improve that" was read as, "what you did sucked, I will make it better". That stuff is never acknowledged publicly but come voting time, it won't be forgotten either.

"I interpret as .. doing things that might piss off people on the committee."

Sounds like obedience to me.

There's a great HBO tv show, "The Wire". It's all about how an institution can consume personalities of those who belong to it. I'm pretty sure tenure is the same way. I see this happening to people who work in corporations for a long time. Their personalities change as they become the sort of person who can succeed in such environments.

That being said, I suspect standout researchers get tenure and get to be themselves, just as talented people can succeed in corporations and still be themselves.

They are generally the exception rather than the norm, however.

Hi, although I'm new here and all of you have been teaching here for 20 years on average, let me tell you why everything you have done with the curriculum is terrible and should be completely rewritten in my style. And of course, I'll have to do all of this myself, since you are all incompetent. And I better teach the first round myself too, because I can't trust you with that either.

So yes, there is a difference between not pissing off people on the committee and "obedience".

Just because someone has been doing something for twenty years doesn't mean that what they're doing can't be improved. It doesn't even mean they're necessarily competent.

The professional response to a newcomer isn't to have a snitty fit of tutting and hissing, but to consider the possibility that maybe the younger newcomer has something to offer.

If they're just being Dunning-Kruger-ish then fine - snipe away.

But it's not at all a given that the situation is that simple - especially when they've been employed as a prospect in the first place, which suggests that at least an entire hiring committee met them and considered they had promise.

No, you are right, I was perhaps too harsh. But it takes some modesty and humility to pause and consider why the system ended up the way it has, and why the elder's are resistant to change. The author shows no sign of modesty or humility, so it isn't at all clear to me that the elders were snitty or tutting and hissing. In fact, it sounds like there were other issues the author was deliberately ignoring. Finite resource allocation, campus-wide priorities, an MS program, etc.

Being able to convince others, win allies, balance priorities, and just get along with others are important skills, and the author seems to excel at none of these. At least, judging by this post. Elsewhere in this thread, a student suggested that there may really have been some nasty infighting happening, in which case this poor guy may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As a student who has participated in some decisions regarding changing courses at my institution, I think classes here are usually bad because no one really cares. It requires tact to say "this course is garbage and you don't care about it anyway; let me handle it" without bruising egos.

But I think it's bullshit to say that not bruising egos is an important skill, especially in science. The kinds of scientists whose egos are easily bruised are the kinds of scientists who Max Planck was talking about when he said "science progresses one funeral at a time." People who refuse to acknowledge constructive criticism unless it's sugar-coated will continue to pursue the same ideas even after others have proved them wrong.

This is a systematic issue. Science is full of people with big egos. When scientist A criticizes scientist B's idea, ideally scientist A would think really hard about scientist B's criticism and either say "yes, you're right" or "no, here's what you're missing" (ideally with experiments). Scientists with big egos don't do this. They reject other scientists' criticism out of hand, and they criticize people based on feelings rather than ideas. The problem is contagious: Scientists with big egos attract more scientists with big egos, since those are the people who continue to believe they are great despite the barrage of nonsensical criticism. And egos tend to grow larger, not smaller, as people rise in rank.

Appropriately weighing others' evaluations of your ideas is really hard. It requires the technical skill necessary to come up with those ideas in the first place; the social skill to distinguish between sycophantic praise and true positive evaluation; and the emotional control to ignore anger or disappointment that might result from negative evaluation and focus on the content instead. In my experience, people who can do these things make much better scientists, and are much better to work with. They are less guarded when brainstorming ideas and more willing to change their minds in the face of superior evidence. But in modern science, there are relatively few incentives that favor accurate self-evaluation, and many that favor persistence above all else. In a world where ~5% of incoming graduate students go on to become tenured professors, people who aren't great and know it (or are great but don't know it) drop out early, and the people looking for positions end up being a combination of great people and mediocre people who think they're great.

> no one really cares

Maybe. Or maybe they care and simply have a different perspective on what is the best approach. Or maybe they have different priorities. Optimizing for one variable (e.g. making one specific course awesome) at the expense of all others (hedging against future enrollment trends, pleasing the board of directors & alumni, limited faculty resources, ....) is simply not how universities work.

So I agree with you, somewhat, in some circumstances. In the science side of thing, maybe. But we're also talking about the college's dog policy here. The author seems to think it is completely obvious that he should be free to bring his dog to his campus lab, and shows no awareness that there may be good reasons there is a no dog policy. Maybe there are students with allergies? Or maybe UB has been sued for this in the past? Or maybe its a state law? I don't know.

So reading your comment carefully, it isn't actually obvious if you think it was the author's colleagues who had the big egos and won't listen to criticism, or the author himself.

At my university, I've asked about educational priorities only to be told, by senior professors, "making this class better or worse won't help anyone's career." This is probably what you mean by "having different priorities."

Actualy I see the big egos as a benefit. They just say "No, you are wrong, thanks for our input." And they really mean both sentences.

A benefit to what? People arguing for years over boring research questions where the evidence clearly favors one viewpoint over another does not benefit anyone except the people involved in the argument, who can ask for more funding to resolve this hotly debated open question.

I don't know and can't speak to the merits of this guy's research, but it distresses me to see so many people here taking him to task merely for daring to publicly voice criticisms of his employer. Not just advising him "This may be tactically suboptimal...", but apparently actually mad at him for saying such things!

Are we not to be allowed, as human beings, to speak for ourselves? Are we to always be in our employee role, subservient to the boss, saying outside of hushed whispers only ever what most pleases the boss? Always in costume, any extra personality immoral to wear outside…

Since hardly anyone has firsthand knowledge of what happened, everyone is extrapolating (it's all anyone can do really). You are extrapolating that this is a case where individuality is getting crushed by The System and this guy's only crime was speaking the truth and not conforming to this or that soul crushing norm of professional life.

For the most part the less sympathetic comments I've seen are extrapolating that there may have been issues with maturity, professionalism, self-awareness, "reading the room", etc. Of course those comments also come from people extrapolating about what really happened based on the account of one person.

The truth is unknowable to almost everyone here, so all people can do is compare what was written to their own experiences. I don't think you're any more right or wrong than anyone else here, but I think your interpretation is based on a different reading of the situation altogether, rather than everyone reading it the same way but having different notions of what was just or unjust about what happened.

I'm not saying he was crushed for his individuality and truth-speaking then. As I said, I have no idea what he was like in the past, or the merits of his tenure case. I'm saying people, in this thread, are taking him to task for criticizing his (soon to be ex-)employer publicly now. That "Don't criticize your employer!" norm, to me, is a bizarre one for strangers to get upset over deviations from.

Vocal criticisms for a former employer will do nothing but come back to bite you. It looks pretty bad to future employers and burns bridges unnecessarily with the former employer, who you generally have to rely on for recommendations. In this case the public criticism being in general a bad idea just highlighted the lack of political acumen that this guy had already shown.

This becomes the chilling effect that one must never criticize their former employers, regardless of what happened or how one feels; they are to be treated as above reproach. Which is exactly the worry.

An analogy for it might be someone complaining about their ex on Facebook. You can still complain in private and voice your opinions when it's relevant but doing it in a public forum without prompting just screams immaturity. I mean it does have a chilling effect but I don't think that's always a bad thing (people's reaction to this post being a prime example as to why)

Kind of hilarious how many comments in this thread already echo the mentality he's opposing. Get in line. Don't rock the boat. Don't complain about your lot. And you probably deserve what you got, because it's what you got. (Aka Just World Fallacy.)

I think it's mostly just me. It's not so much "get in line", but "before you complain about getting in line, maybe consider why there is a line in the first place".

Getting burned by pissing off one or two people in your department is unfortunate. Pissing of more than half the people in your department? Plus lots of people in other departments? And the administration too? And even the local newspaper?

Either he is the only good guy in a sea of jerks, or maybe he's not quite the good guy he thinks he is. I don't know the which it is, and the article doesn't tell us either.

I'm not sure why this story upset me so much. I think it is because when I started in my department, I saw things I thought were terrible -- courses that hadn't been revised in years, the wrong languages being taught, outdated exercises, poorly-written web pages, cumbersome processes, etc. And I said so, frequently. Thankfully, I had some great mentors to help teach me to slow down and listen to others, and work with others. We've now made lots of changes, updated the curriculum, and done it all together. And some things I thought were terrible I know realize are actually elegant solutions to problems outside of our control (e.g. finite money and time and expertise, and a college administration that needs to think about public perception, alumni, gifting, athletics, other departments, and lots of other things besides "what will make the CS department awesome").

Often feeling that any criticism of your work is unfair can blind you to what the real criticism is.

Yeah, there's probably a few folks who you can't win over no matter what. But, there are also valid and real takeaways that colleagues are offering, and holding your hands over your ears saying the system is rigged isn't going to help one to continue to grow.

That would be super easy to do just about anywhere these days. One doesn't even have to be particularly controversial. One merely has to vehemently and uncompromisingly come out as a supporter of our Bill of Rights and lay shame on those who have rejected our pre-existing "natural" rights. It's a trigger like none other, it seems. Odd, wouldn't you say?

Worse still, I come out defending rights that have been incorporated in western legal tradition since the Magna Carta and the hate really shines! Is freedom that dangerous?

But, on the other hand, if one person around is a jerk, they're a jerk. But if everyone around you is a jerk, maybe you're the jerk.

The world has enough of those kind of people. It needs more iconoclasts.

The just world hypothesis*

It's not a fallacy if it's a tenable argument.

This article has a powerful and important point to make. But much of the strength of an argument rests on the author's evaluation of his own contributions which is almost unfailingly positive.

The article would be even more effective if accompanied by statement from one or more of the eight department members who voted against granting tenure.

He obviously pissed off his department, and so they voted with an aim to punishing him. He's a fool not to appeal it, though. If he appeals then the decision will be made by people outside of his department who won't have the same emotional stakes in the decision. Rage quit after you win your appeal, if you must!

$3,000,000 in funding, most of it still active is astonishing (https://blue.cse.buffalo.edu/proposals/), and his DBLP (http://dblp.uni-trier.de/pers/hd/c/Challen:Geoffrey) is pretty awesome (note: he's in DBLP as Geoffrey Challen, Geoffrey Werner Challen, and Geoffrey Werner-Allen).

But he DID keep his dog in his lab, against university policy: https://web.archive.org/web/20151002100639/http://www.buffal...

I hope he changes his mind about not appealing. The grass ain't greener anywhere else. All university departments are filled with miserable gossips.

> All university departments are filled with miserable gossips.

They are also filled with people who think their own vision and priorities for the intro programming course, operating systems course, networking course, "entire" undergrad curriculum, department and college resource allocation, and campus dog policy, are obviously the only correct and rational choice, and anyone who disagrees is a miserable gossip.

Sounds like everyone in any career, including the OP or people on Hacker News.

Here's something he didn't write about: Postdoc at MIT (2010–11), PhD from Harvard (2010), 5000+ citations with an h-index of 14 [1][2].

[1]: https://www.linkedin.com/in/geoffrey-challen-572b771a

[2]: https://blue.cse.buffalo.edu/people/challen@buffalo.edu/Geof...

His performance in the citation game is considerably weaker since 2011 (when he started at Buffalo).

>performance in the citation game

Am I the only one who thinks that is a cringe-worthy metric to evaluate a scientist?

In any case, it is what many research professors are evaluated by, that and how much grant money they bring in.

I always thought I would enjoy doing research on the bleeding edge, but doing that research isn't what matters for your success in that industry. Citations and funding are "traction" in academia and I don't see anything displacing that, whether we like it or not.

The grass ain't greener anywhere else.

The politics may not be better anywhere else, but pretty much anywhere is friendlier to life, including grass, than Buffalo.

On the other hand, why? The article jives with my own experience and understanding from college and talking to people that went to other not top tier schools. Most schools are not equipped to teach CS, certainly not to increase diversity, and they don't really care. Change is scary, especially if it might work. He can make more money in industry and move around more fluidly to find like minded folks, sounds like a great life decision. Honestly, most people don't know when to cut their losses. I think he does.

It looks like he also flipped classrooms and was active within the department service-wise. That's a pretty crazy decision not to tenure him from the outside.

It was really crazy in the department too, at least among undergraduate students. His lab is very well known as a great place to learn about the development of mobile devices, which is basically not offered in any courses and difficult to be formally educated in otherwise.

As sad as it is, there are lots of places where these things are met with skepticism and argument.

I know people who specifically waited years to redesign courses until they had tenure.

I was also wondering about his chance at appeal, but it's not clear how close he was:

> I knew that I had made a few enemies, but I was surprised that the final vote was so lopsided: 6 yays, 2 abstainers, and 8 nays.

What's the bar for passing? A majority of yeas? A plurality? Is there any sort of standard or is it different from school to school?

I think it's not really an appeal. Instead you let your application for promotion continue to the next level up the chain. But letting it continue up after one level has rejected it is essentially an appeal.

"Appointments require full review and votes at all levels (including the department, school/college, PRB [President's Review Board], the Provost, and the President.)"


I'm sure a strong majority at the school/college level would work! There are probably even a few (very rare) cases where a President has overturned department and school/college rejections. Probably ultimately it's the President's call.

Here's a small qualitative report on university presidents overturning tenure decisions: http://www.eg.bucknell.edu/~mligare/governance/adhoc/crtp_fi...

(My rough back-of-napkin summary: it's a once-every-10-years type of occurrence, and can go either way).

For him, it is a gift--a reason to leave Buffalo and go somewhere better.

I can't be the only high school age lurker here that thought your comment came straight out of an AP DBQ.

What is an "AP DBQ"?

Working in a large organization straight out of college, I've learned the meaning of the phrase 'pay your dues.' When you get hired at a large organization, you're expected to fall in line for a while before you get entrusted with political clout. Many people chafe at this: why is someone of my caliber wasting his time doing low-level work in an obviously broken system when I could be making real change happen?

The naive and/or cynical answer is because the organization demands conformity: wouldn't want to hire a fresh thinker to derail our institutional gravy train! Let's burn them out by making them jump through an arbitrary and tedious series of hoops so they come out the other end too limp and tired to overthrow us! This interpretation is nonsense.

The informed answer is that this stage is an additional filtering process. Being a leader in a large organization requires politicking: coalition building, patience, tact, etc. Not every junior hire will develop these skills. Organizations that endow too much power in someone lacking such skills will inevitably suffer from unnecessary conflicts and (often) fruitless instability.

This post seems like the author is listing his accomplishments while stunned that they alone don't qualify him for tenure. However, I would wager anything that his potential to accomplish these sorts of things was obvious to the department from day one. If so, it likely influenced their decision to hire him in the first place. His achievement of this potential yielded little new information. Meanwhile, his ostentatious conflicts and overly vocal style likely did.

My personal assessment is he's clearly a brilliant and hard-working faculty member, but the rock-the-boat actions he boasts and the very fact that he wrote this post suggests that he lacks the soft touch of a leader. Tenure doesn't just mean being un-fireable, it means helping shape your institution, and a brilliant leader without a steady hand is more trouble than he's worth.

As a former academic, my advice is that this may hurt in the short term, but staying true to your principles is important in a world where situational ethics rule. I am a lifelong libertarian and made no attempt to hide it. Leftist academics are not interested in diversity of thought, they are not interested in debate. They merely want to rule and have an echo chamber. I found that most of them weren't even very intelligent people--just kind of mediocre, and that most were intimidated by anyone with real gumption, diverse skills, and the bravery to speak against the party line.

The world needs you. No matter what your politics are, if you truly are advancing science and doing all the things you wrote about, you will be fine. You just need to take this lesson to heart and understand that the machine is like Skynet in that it protects itself.

I further recommend you leave NY State, especially upstate. It's had it. Barring some massive turnaround, there is no future for anyone in Upstate NY.

I am surprised by the sentiment of many of the comments here. Perhaps it is from spending so many years in the academic world, but I have repeatedly witnessed how "conforming" or "following protocol" with hopes of tenure has fostered teaching and research deficits within academic communities.

I don't know the author of this article or his research, but his story is entirely plausible. Tenured faculty can be brutal to those bidding to join the club, often perceiving the most well-intended actions to be threatening. In the end the consequences most strongly harm the advancement of the field and the education of students.

I know this is a rough situation, but perhaps there are real merits to the decision that I wish we could've seen discussed in the post. For example, I went ahead and watched a few of the videos from his internet course and very quickly grokked what kind of professor he might be.

On an industry level, yeah he's right. These things are happening throughout academia in departments everywhere. Tenure is a poorly designed system. Most likely, UBuffalo is missing out on a great teacher. On a personal level, it'd be a shame to walk away from an experience like this as being cynical and defensive.

What kind of professor is he?

This article is somewhat resonating with me, and where I am in my life right now. After a few years of postdoc, I'm at a crossroads of where I want to go. In some sense, I'm a lot like the author, and I'm not really doing enough of what "they" want. I love research and tackling tough problems. But becoming a full professor just isn't about that.

I'd much rather stay in my office and work out a problem than go to a conference and "network". Or waste time writing a paper about my incremental progress (I could just wait and write about the whole thing!) That makes me a terrible "scientist", I guess.

As my gran used to say - "we don't bake 'rather' cookies here". I mean, I'd 'rather' lay in my hammock sipping pina coladas, but here I am on a Sunday afternoon waiting for my project to compile. Every job has aspects to it that aren't much fun, that's why it's a job.

Academics realize that when they grant tenure to someone, that person is likely to be their coworker for the next several decades.

This guy may very well be brilliant in his field, but he is clearly not a good fit for the department he was in. Quite frankly, he seems to be abrasive and a bit of a dick. He also seems inexcusably naive about how academia works, considering how long he has been an academic. Why would any rational person in his department guarantee him the job security to stick around for the rest of his career?

Why would anyone want to hire him after the unprofessional and petulant display he just posted on the web?

Assuming he is indeed "brilliant in his field" and simply not very good at politics, there are tons of places who will happily hire that combination.

Here’s a (albeit small) sample of his students’ opinion of Geoffery.


A common criticism seems to be that he has a huge ego.

I've seen so many professors I loved, especially the tougher ones, given crappy ratings by stupid idiots who choose to use that site.

Most people, when passed over for promotion, don't write about it publicly. One has to wonder what sort of spirit possessed this author.

That's not how tenure works. Up or out -- you get tenure or you hit the road. So this is actually fairly common in academia. Sort of a parting shot, if you will.

Yes, but he's now trying to take his show on the road and get a job at another university. The reason this "parting shot" is risky is that it may get him pre-emptively ruled out by a lot of other hiring committees.

But speaking out here about the reasons he was denied tenure may be the only chance he gets to present that to some schools that might otherwise say "Buffalo knew this guy and tossed him, they must know something."

It may also prompt potential employers to look at the makeup of the department that rejected him - is it full of people who got their initial degrees when 32-bit architectures were theoretical novelties?

Good point. In this case I think he's confident that he'll get a job somewhere, and therefore he's willing to do this as a way of eliminating potential employers from contention based on whether they do or don't value the kinds of contributions he's making. It's a good strategy unless he's wrong about how desirable he is.

He's trying to get attention so he can get a job somewhere else:


Yeah, I'm sure departments are just dying to hire someone who will bite them like this if they don't make him happy.

I don't understand the mentality where if anyone dares shares their opinion about a former place of employment that has anything remotely negative about the place, that it is looked upon as poor form. It's ridiculous and takes away power from employees and those looking for work. We should openly talk about our experiences in places we work.

Wouldn't it be an unfortunate thing, for someone to get hired into a place that has toxicity in it, when simply warning others may have prevented it? We should side with having empathy for our peers and colleagues, not for our employers and organizations.

In general, this post is mostly positive. It's a reflection on his time there. Does it contain some criticisms? Yes, but to say that he should just shut up, take the beating, and move on is tragic.

He'll have no problem finding employment.

> I don't understand the mentality where if anyone dares shares their opinion about a former place of employment that has anything remotely negative about the place, that it is looked upon as poor form.

Mmm - I think it's an extension of the "praise in public, criticize in private" mentality. Not everyone in all environments takes blunt critique of their work well, even if it's not intentionally aimed at them, especially if everyone can hear it. A little diplomacy can help a bitter pill go down much smoother.

The article seems to contain some public, blunt, and very clearly coworker-targeted critique:

>> And of course I’m angry with my colleagues. I trusted that they would be able to put aside historical personal grievances and act in the best interest of the department. I was wrong.

I'd be this blunt with close colleagues and friends. With everyone else, I'd take a moment to consider the possibility that I might've had something to do with the personality conflict (to be fair, the author does seem to do this earlier) and reword more diplomatically. Because we should strive to have empathy for our peers and colleagues - even if we don't get along with them perfectly. To do otherwise risks contributing to toxicity.

But as you say:

> In general, this post is mostly positive.

So here's hoping nobody sweats the small stuff.

I don't think this piece is that bad, and it doesn't sound like he is fighting his department.

I think you're right that viewing public pieces like this as "bad" is generally not helpful to anyone, but there seem to be lot of people in academia who are afraid of pieces like this and initially jump to the interpretation they're a fight or some way of circumventing the existing processes.

If this guy is as good as he says he is - then yeah he should be able to find a job, but posting this could make some of that searching harder, or at least cause resistance.

Most employers, especially large ones, are extremely risk-averse. They don't want to hire people who might be disruptive or badmouth them later, and they usually have other candidates without those risky qualities.

...And if said spirit was apparent to the people voting, and if they factored that into their decision.

Speaking cynically, the motivation of the essay (and in particular stuff like his thin-gruel attempt to wrap himself in the flag of social justice) seems to be recruiting an internet brigade to harass his colleagues into reversing their decision, or simply as retaliation.

I'd say it's perhaps the former, since he's a little dickhead whose tenure was denied based on his attitude, and in part for harassing his colleagues. The other part is his research output, which is not that great either: much of the work he had was done at Harvard, and his work at Buffalo isn't that great.

it's such a letdown when one realizes that universities are not this ideal utopia where everyone's a straight talker, where there is zero politics, where the people care about research and not the money it brings etc.

Must have been depressing for this guy to realize that universities nowadays are just massive hedge funds that sponsor football programs that are bigger than computer science departments.

Couldn't have said it better! They want to place stupid games? Then watch their relevance dissipate into nothingness. Science doesn't need the current research system in order to survive and thrive.

Well, that's his side of the story. Burning bridges publicly while signalling that you are difficult to work with is a twofer. Classy. Subtle. There are 8 people who have any second thoughts answered, and likely two others who might not abstain if given a second chance.

Life goes on. Pick up your pieces and build a new dream. Don't stand on the bridge you are burning.

If the author was really "point[ing] out problems with resource allocation, poor distribution of teaching load, lack of diversity among both our faculty and students, terrible graduate admissions systems, looking the other way regrading student plagiarism, and our neglect of our undergraduate programs" from the start, then I'm not surprised at the outcome. While I'm sure most or all of what the author complained about were true problems, the fact is that your colleagues (1) already know; (2) know a lot more than you do about _why_ things are broken (or the reasoning behind what only _appears_ to be broken); (3) might already be working to fix it; (4) might be _responsible_ for what you're ranting about, which may well be a huge improvement over previous iterations of the policy/system; and (5) don't appreciate being lectured about how broken everything is by someone that doesn't realize #1-4.

Tenure is a big commitment by the department and the university to your career. No matter how successful you are on the objective criteria behind the selection, you also need to be someone the faculty can envision being glad to work with for the next few decades, and who they think can be effective in improving the department in the future. If we believe the author's own evidence, then I would have been inclined to vote nay as well.

If any of those items were true (and I highly doubt that), his colleagues should have simply mentioned it rather than stay quiet, passive aggressive, and butthurt.

I'm guessing they _were_ trying to mention it and he interpreted it as "don't make waves till you get tenure". And sure, some people explicitly say that, but the fact is, new people in an old organization do not understand the complexities, and telling everyone they're wrong is not going to win friends or influence people.

Here's a similar blog post from 3 years ago, with similar HN comments...



Couldn't scroll on the site on my iPhone. I don't think I've seen that before.

I've had it happen before, what's likely happening is that you're scrolling an element behind the article due to a bug in safari with z indexes.

Somehow, everyone thought that putting people in a straight-jacket for 30-35 years is a great way for obtaining "creative individuals".

How come the three papers that the author cites as examples of groundbreaking work have 2 citations between them? Is this the norm in computer systems?

They were published this year. They'll be cited next year if they are useful. There's a 6-9 month delay between paper submission and publication.

So how does he know they're so great then? In academic career progress contexts, citations are what matters. If your 'great' papers have 2 citations, they're objectively not great - in fact, they're pretty shit even. They might become 'great' next year, time will tell - but making a case of how great a researcher you are with a paper selection like that is, well, not very smart.

If they are new, they are neither proven great or shit. Like a new novel or work of art, or any IP.

The author is proposing that people read those papers becaus he is proud of them. Nothing wrong with that.

No, not true. He's arguing he's an asset to the university, and one of his arguments is his publishing track record. In that context, there are two way papers are 'good': they are published in Nature or The Lancet, or they have high citation counts. Whether a paper has the potential to get lots of citations doesn't count for anything. Likewise, if the content is super out of this world great, but nobody has cited it - the paper is shit.

In all sorts of other contexts, obviously there are many ways in which something can be good. In the specific way he used it, there is a very well-defined and objective standard, and he fails it.

Why do you hate this guy? In most areas of computer science, certain value of publications is attributed to the venue where they are published, which isn't necessarily science or lancet. His RV work got the best paper award, which is a good indicator of quality and potential. The other two papers are in reasonably good venues.

I think that his publications record isn't great, and that and his personality are perhaps what lead to his tenure's outcomes, but that's not a point you are making.

There's other, less public ways to get feedback. You'll get positive review, people at conferences will express interest, etc.

But yes, only time will tell at the end of the day.

When he says they are groundbreaking, he is just announcing to the world that he thinks well of them. hyperbole seems to be the norm for this young fellow...

From this other page https://blue.cse.buffalo.edu/ , it looks like he can take his grants, research, Phd students and courses with him to a new job! I'm totally amazed at that. Don't they belong to his old university? Is that how it usually works in universities?

Most times, grants stay with the department and they have the discretion to use the remainder however they want.

Not quite; there's a mechanism for this, though the details vary by department/funding source/phase of the moon. Typically one can take at least part of earned grants elsewhere, though sometimes the originating school can still take overhead before transferring the rest (leading to double-overhead, when the new school takes a percentage of the remainder).

(The funding system doesn't always make sense, but it REALLY wouldn't make sense to give a grant, especially something like a CAREER, which is given to a single PI based on the work that PI proposes to do, to a department where the PI who proposed to do the work no longer actually works...)

Why is Tenure still a thing? It's basically a lifetime employment contract.

It seems the only argument for tenure is academic freedom.. a tenured professor can pursue an avenue of research without fear of reprisal for it being controversial or not yielding results (though really, even experiments that 'fail' actually serve to prove that it's not the way to go).

It seems to be me like this is a problem that can be solved in many better ways. For example, employees in most (every?) jurisdiction are protected by laws that mean they can't be fired without just cause. Even if the employer tries to find ways around this (making up reasons), the fired employee can generally lodge a complaint/lawsuit to prove otherwise. Can some type of protection of this sort not be written into academic contracts as well?

> employees in most (every?) jurisdiction are protected by laws that mean they can't be fired without just cause.

The United States is not one of those jurisdictions. Employees can be fired for any reason other than certain protected reasons (race, etc.) One can literally be fired for supporting the wrong political candidate, for example.

I understand the spirit of your comment, and it's probably a fair summary for anyone unfamiliar with at-will employment, but

(a) a lot of this is state-specific, not US wide as you indicate

(b) many states have laws specifically to protect employees from being fired for their political affiliations and activities.

(c) some states have even broader protection

But, to your point, you can always fire someone for their political view and say it was for one of a billion other non-protected reason.

The specifics vary by state, of course, but actually very few states protect political activity, either inside or outside the workplace. In fact, only 3 states specifically protect political activity, and two others protect "lawful conduct outside work."[0]

But, yes, you can always fire your employees for being too attractive[1], if firing them for their political beliefs is too risky or distasteful.

Broadly speaking, unless the employee has contractual protection; or the reason is discriminatory against members of a protected class, is in retaliation for exercising other workplace rights, or is contrary to public policy; it's legally acceptable to fire anyone for any reason.

[0]: http://www.workplacefairness.org/retaliation-political-activ...

[1]: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/fashion/Some-women-are-fir...

Professors are also thinkers and researchers. Thinkers should be free to explore different positions, without fear of being ostracized for their ideas. Researchers should have some sense of longevity, so that they can undertake grand projects that require years of continuity.

Your third point is not always applicable, in my understanding. At-will employees in New York can be fired for any non-protected reason, or even without cause. Contracts and unions elevate the burden of the employer to justify a termination, but outside of that, it's not easy to fight a wrongful termination without having hard evidence of some kind of implied contract.

Tenure is just an employment contract that can only be terminated with just cause. (And the number of tenure-track positions is going down as far as I know)

Tenure is shrinking because universities are realizing that the core of their workforce isn't tenured scientists - it's assistants and adjuncts, post-docs, and grad students. In the business model world of big science being publish, get grant funding, take overhead, tenured professors are mainly just project managers.

Why make a commitment to support 2x more tenure track positions when you have 1-2 good enough to attract wide-eyed grad students? This is the market correcting itself to shrinking federal budgets and ballooning workforce supply.

Another part of the argument is that the security of tenure somewhat offsets the low salaries of academia relative to industry.

Sort of. Depends on what you mean "low". I know salaries in that field can be skewed by large salaries from tech companies, but tenured professors at UB tend to make at least $100k, which is a very good salary in areas such as western NY. "Superstars" can make around $250k.

As a side note, since UB is a state school, salaries are public information[0]. He was making over $100k, even before tenure.

[0] http://seethroughny.net

Every public employee in Texas must have its salary public, so you can see those nice 5 million dollars a year salary for football coach, president etc.[1][2], but you can also look at the Computer Science professors [3][4]. It ranges from a $154k to $250k, those salaries don't look too skewed compared to tech companies, especially considering the cost of life in those city (median housing price 3 to 6x cheaper than SF)

A $250k salary in Austin is supposedly equivalent to a $450k salary in San Francisco[5].

[1] https://salaries.texastribune.org/university-of-texas-at-aus...

[2] https://salaries.texastribune.org/texas-am-university/

[3] https://salaries.texastribune.org/university-of-texas-at-aus...

[4] https://salaries.texastribune.org/texas-am-university/depart...

[5] https://www.nerdwallet.com/cost-of-living-calculator/compare...

> those salaries don't look too skewed compared to tech companies

First, I think UT is a bit of an outlier: they are one of the top ranked departments in the country. Second: faculty members making $150k typically don't step into jobs in industry at $150k, they typically double or triple their salary.

Generally, salaries in academia are much lower than what the academic could be making in industry. However, to make that in industry they'd have to compromise in a lot of ways: having a job in academia means you're trading your opportunity cost to not have a boss, work on what you want, mentor students, set your own hours, etc...

Anecdotally (from my experience in academia) salaries for profs at average departments ranges from low 100s to high 100s, unless you move into more management-style roles (e.g., department chair). Naturally, this is higher for top places.

Tenure also allows the researcher to keep digging that rabbit hole that he/she is specializing in without fear of one day having to work in "the real world", where that very specialized knowledge is essentially useless.

(That came out like it's a bad thing, but it's not.)

I don't think it's the underlying reason for tenure, but it's my guess that if you eliminate it, the faculty will simply unionize. For instance, K-12 teachers have tenure as a benefit written into their union contracts.

Look at his video on the flipped classroom format. He really draws out the explanation. Very verbose. I'm not impressed. It could have been explained in one sentence.

And he loves to say "you know." Way too much.

And when he writes names of people on the whiteboard (later in a video on packets) he scribbles them. If it's worth writing down, it's worth writing clearly, especially for something like a person's name where it's not a dictionary word with a known spelling. This is a quality of instruction issue. To be a great teacher, you have to notice these things, care about them, and fix them.

I don't know why he has significant supporters here, saying things like "stay true to principles".

Principles don't require a person to project bitterness and cynicism. He's indulging his frustrations which may feel satisfying, but does not strengthen his argument.

Many organizations would pass him over based on this post alone because they would worry he may be difficult to manage or not a team player.

It's true many people don't have political skills but there are workarounds. For example, always get a second opinion before posting something like this.

I know number of citations is far from perfect, but from a rough look at google scholar his papers (since he started as assistant professor) have been cited <100 times... I am not too familiar with his field but in most CS fields I would assume that hardly counts as groundbreaking research.

I am sure there is some kernel of truth in his claim of unfairness, and he seems like a genuinely great teacher, but denial of tenure seems more like a case of promising faculty (his publication record prior to his start at UB seems stellar) not living up to expectations?

Well, I guess I am generally one of the worst performing employees. But why would you post such a statement in public? Maybe he is right in everything but in making this public I would never hire this guy. Probably would like to hang out for a beer with him. But hire?

Well, everything is negotiable. If he's bringing in money, negotiate with the university about a good salary.

It's no more job security than in corporate america.

Those who noted his discussion about teaching might want to consult youtube for some examples of how he does that.

As the Japanese say, the nail that's standing up gets pulled out.

I both admire and feel sorry for the author. To pour your heart and soul for so long and not achieve your outcomes can be very hurtful and devastating.

The language in this document is telling in a few ways. There is not much about collaboration with peers or superiors other than conflict. The article left me with an impression of conflict and someone who wasn't a team player. I am guessing that cultural compatibility was an issue. It may be possible that the outcome may be for the best because it may help the author grow (although, public accusations will not be seen well by future employees as it's airing many people's dirty laundry).

I'm also note that the author raises some issues that I as a boss take exception to. For example, more diversity. I am aware that in today's climate, diversity is a highly charged, politically correct topic. The author talks about diversity by hiring by gender. What diversity is the author seeking? That of genitals? Is there some magic empathy or creativity that females supposedly have? I've always built teams based on needs of skills, personality, cultural fit. As an example, I knocked back a highly qualified, well presented male candidate because he was too ambitious for a maintenance role. This was not because of his gender, but, because he was unlikely to provide a long term ROI and would expect promotion that couldn't be delivered and cause unrest by venting disappointment as a lack of growth. I would most probably be seen by the author as being sexist for not hiring by gender to fill a quota and I would view the author as sexist for hiring by gender and being unable to see that diversity is not a gender, but skills and personality.

I would encourage the author to ask themself if they are a team player. I would encourage the author to understand themselves and the sort of culture they want to work in. Maybe, it is a culture of creativity rather than talent that the author craves (as an example). Seeking feedback from peers outside of work may be very helpful and revealing too.

I can be confrontational (too many fights over too many years), but I know who I am and I know what I want. I support my organisation above myself (during working hours) and I support and respect juniors, peers and more senior staff. I negotiate my views. I listen carefully. I seek feedback from my peers. I align my views with my peers where it doesn't compromise my principals. As an example, I would never work for a company that hires (or excludes) by gender or race because I want freedom to hire the right staff, not some boxes ticked. I know myself and my employee. I turn down jobs where I don't believe in the company for my own sake and the company's.

I wish the author the best of luck and hope they have the courage to ask the tough questions. I think they need to ask some tough questions.

This resembles the late stages of stack ranking, where in the "endgame", the remaining high ranking contributors try to preserve their ranking by avoiding working with potentially stronger contributors.

Stack ranking is a downward spiral.

my department voted against my tenure case earlier this week

Since this was posted 2016-10-22, I'm gonna assume the department did this smack in the middle of the semester.

Academic job markets get started around this time of year, depending on the discipline and affected by the dates of their big conferences, for jobs to begin in fall of the following year. So by giving him the decision now, he has enough advance notice to prepare his CV and apply for jobs.

I guess you're right. I took a class once where the prof was denied tenure about half way through. He was completely deflated and it affected his teaching considerably. He'd expected he'd get tenure.

This is in line with the tenure cases that I have seen (across US) -- the department votes tend to be in early Fall, and the case makes its way through the rest of the univ over the next 5-6 months.

My school had one in the spring recently. I know because they solicited opinions of the candidate's recent students on his abilities as a teacher. In that case, it was still a mid-semester deal.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact