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Volume 10, No. 8 - November 2000  
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No Tenure, No Peace

REJECTION HURTS—AND FEW REBUFFS STING MORE THAN THE UNSUCCESSFUL TENURE BID. In the old days, you might have worked through that pain with your therapist or your loved ones. Now the Web offers a new option: Howl away into the void. Your friends and colleagues can then download your grievances and judge just how badly you were wronged.

John McLaren chose this tack after Columbia's economics department passed on promoting him last year. Not that McLaren, who studies trade theory and the regulation of commodity markets, was left out in the cold: The University of Virginia, Boston College, and the University of Wisconsin stepped in with tenure offers. And yet in August, after he settled on Virginia, he sent a change-of-address e-mail to 180 of his closest friends, directing them to a five-thousand-word rant titled "The Worst Mistake I Ever Made."

The mistake, apparently, was accepting a tenure-track job at Columbia after earning his Ph.D. from Princeton. "I did not know then what I know now about the pathologies, the cynicism, and the lack of principle that rule at the economics department at Columbia," writes McLaren, adumbrating problems that range from deadwood professors to departmental carpeting marred by "large and persistent stains."

At the core of McLaren's diatribe is a significant complaint: that Columbia's economics department views junior professors as underlings "to be flattered and fleeced." His own career in the department is a case in point. Recognizing him as a "nice guy" and an "easy mark," the department's chairmen deluged him with administrative chores, McLaren contends. Early on, McLaren served on a committee charged with hiring new assistant professors. The committee, he writes, was stacked with junior people, even though its task "was so overwhelming in its scale and so open-ended" that it left very little time for writing and research.

In his seven years at Columbia, McLaren was placed on the committee three more times, although there is a "sort of consensus in the profession" that no "ethically run department" would burden a junior professor so. What's more, for most of McLaren's time at Columbia, he taught two courses a semester—one of which was almost invariably a course he had never prepared or taught before. He also found himself taking up the slack for senior professors who served as principal advisers for Ph.D. candidates, "apparently without ever reading the dissertation."

Though he strained under the weight of this albatross, McLaren graciously endured: "I honestly had to exert a gigantic effort to get any research done at all. Nonetheless, somehow, through nights and weekends and a quantity of teeth gritting and elbow grease, I did. I'm pleased to report (at the same time as I blush to mention) that I scored a number of high-profile successes in leading journals... Somehow, I learned to dance with those anchors chained to my ankles."

McLaren expected to be rewarded. Instead, he laments, he suffered a fate he describes as something out of Goodfellas: He was rubbed out. In the year he came up for review, Columbia hired five tenured professors, including two trade economists, Donald Davis and David Weinstein. McLaren says he was assured that these hires—in his field—would not hurt his chances. But he alleges that when his tenure bid was rejected, department chairman Richard Clarida told him an imbalance of trade economists was the reason.

As if all that weren't enough, writes McLaren in a postscript to his essay, Columbia's International Affairs Building, which houses the economics department, was "possibly the ugliest and dreariest structure in the hemisphere": The elevators were slow, the ceiling in his office once partly collapsed, his bookshelves sagged, and mice had the run of the place. Not just mice, either. He switched on the light in a men's room late one evening only to find every surface teeming with cockroaches. "The memory," he writes, "still grips me occasionally."

Then there were those "ancient and drab carpets."

Since its posting in August, the rant has attracted more than two thousand hits and has set McLaren's friends and former co-workers abuzz. Reached in Charlottesville, McLaren stresses his upbeat attitude. "The one thing that I don't want is for people to think that this is a bitter, angry, little man who put this up," he says. "In fact, I'm a really happy guy." He points out that because his wife, a psychologist, also got a tenure-track job at UVA, it's entirely possible he would have ended up there in any case. Does he harbor any bitterness? Perish the thought. Last year is "water under the bridge as far as I'm concerned." As for the Web site, he says he hoped it would inspire internal reform. "I like to think of it as a very positive document," he adds.

That's not quite the way it was received at Columbia. Clarida, chairman for the past three years, discussed the posting with junior faculty. "We are taking no specific steps to change anything, because nothing needs to be changed," he says. "We view John McLaren as a success story. He was very productive here—so productive that he had three tenure offers." Moreover, Clarida says he worked out a reduction in McLaren's teaching load, and that of other professors, from four courses per year to three in 1998. Administrative burdens, he maintains, are distributed as evenly as possible.

Was McLaren unjustly edged out by other hires in his subfield? Considerations of departmental balance do make a difference for junior professors, notes Jagdish Bhagwati, the most prominent trade economist at Columbia and McLaren's mentor. If the department has no one at all in your field, your chances of promotion are slim. Similarly, it may be difficult to build a coalition in your favor if there's a perceived overload of faculty who share your specialty. However, in Columbia's case, Bhagwati says, there is no such overload: In fact, the department has an offer out to Princeton's Giovanni Maggi, yet another top international economics specialist. As for the overwork question, Bhagwati says: "Since we want to hold on to good people, the tendency is to bend over backward to accommodate young people. I was a bit startled to see John writing in the way he did. If he had a problem, he should have come to me."

All well and good. But what's the deal with that building? "I would love to have the building renovated, as would anyone who has ever taught here," Clarida says. "That's not a unique view."

Christopher Shea

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