Professors oppose use of peer review reports in tenure case

Law scholars see wider battle against hierarchical abuse in US dispute

February 12, 2020
Bad peer review
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Dozens of law professors have protested against the University of Southern California’s use of peer review comments on manuscript submissions to reject a tenure application.

The professors – from institutions that include Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Columbia universities – called USC’s treatment of Shmuel Leshem an attack on academic integrity and honesty.

“A substitution of peer review reports and journal rejections for standard tenure review letters not only undermines the tenure review process but also hobbles the peer review evaluation system,” the scholars write in an open letter.

Dr Leshem was appointed an assistant professor of law at USC in 2006 and was denied tenure in 2013. Allies assembled the protest letter, with nearly 60 signatures, to boost him in his most recent legal challenge to USC’s action.

That support, Professor Leshem said, appeared to reflect not so much faculty concern that other universities might try such a tactic but rather a more general anxiety in higher education about senior professors using a range of methods to protect their turf from younger colleagues.

Such behaviour seemed to attest to an atmosphere of “upward toxicity” being experienced widely in academia, he said.

Dr Leshem said his tenure review panel obtained the records of his exchanges with his journal article reviewers because he shared them with a member of the panel who had requested them on the grounds that the information would help the panel better understand the views of others in his field.

At the time, Dr Leshem continued, he did not realise that the request was abnormal. “In retrospect, I shouldn’t have shared them, but hindsight is 20/20.”

One signatory of the protest letter, Alex Raskolnikov, Wilbur H. Friedman professor of tax law at Columbia University, agreed with Dr Leshem that the concern generated among faculty outside USC was less about the specifics of the case and more about confronting the general attitudes it appeared to reflect.

“It’s not a screw-up – it’s deliberate,” Professor Raskolnikov said of USC’s treatment of Dr Leshem.

Dr Leshem lost an initial round in a lawsuit in California state court accusing USC of violating rules in his tenure case, and he is now pursuing an appeal.

A USC spokeswoman said that the university’s tenure progress “is rigorous and involves multiple levels of review of the individual’s teaching, scholarship and service”.

“The content of the tenure dossier is confidential. Should the candidate disagree with decisions, there is a proceeding providing the opportunity for review of the process. Tenure is awarded only to individuals who meet the standards established by the discipline for original contributions, quality teaching and strong service,” the spokeswoman said.


Print headline: Professors fight peer review use by tenure panel

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Reader's comments (1)

If peer review is flawed for the awarding of research grants, I don't see how the same process is valid for tenure - scrap it as well for tenure. Make tenure decisions on more objective job performance indicators.