Recently there has been some discussion about ‘what do professors do?’ in the press, with comments from fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry (and on my own blog here), with a major emphasis on leadership, mentoring, teaching and the desirability of not putting oneself first. Another key function, which intersects with those attributes but that was not highlighted, is writing references. For one’s students and postdocs this should be easy: one should know their strengths and weaknesses, have advised them how to improve the latter and be aware if they are likely to be able to overcome some flaw such as poor speaking ability, or overenthusiasm to the point of sloppiness. What is not so often talked about are the enquiries that are often made of senior academics about their colleagues in a much less formal way. If asked to write something down one can agonise over nuances of phrasing and be careful about what is omitted, even if hoping someone will read between the lines as to what is missing in the reference. But what should you do if you are asked for an off the cuff verbal response?
I was reminded of this recently when asked for my thoughts about a group of people whose names had been put forward for a senior advisory role. My first response to one of the names on this list, an eminent senior academic (though not a physicist) was ‘lecher’. Not a phrase I would want to utter in an unguarded moment even though I had had first hand experience of this chap’s behaviour. To be greeted, at a reception in a royal palace, with the comment ‘Oh I do like kissing games’ , followed up by attempting to act this out, means that I know what I’m talking about on this front. (He ignored my response that ‘I didn’t’.) It was clear from asking colleagues that his failings in this direction were well known but, as far as I could tell, not challenged despite – or perhaps because of – his seniority. So, when asked what I thought about this guy taking on a role in which lechery was unlikely to be a relevant criterion, it’s difficult to know how to respond. Maybe honesty would have been the best policy but in a semi-formal situation I preferred obfuscation, possibly the coward’s way out. Nevertheless it was obvious my body language conveyed I was unimpressed and the name was dropped.
This situation of being asked for an unwritten but honest opinion about colleagues at a comparable level is not so unusual, but I sometimes find myself worrying if my personal views are colouring my professional thoughts in ways that are themselves unprofessional. If someone has done bad science that is fine, then it’s easy to say that you feel they are too blinkered, or claiming too much or whatever your view may be. If someone is being considered for a headship of a department and you have seen them be dreadful committee chairs, falling into one of the less attractive character patterns I’ve described previously, it is no doubt reasonable to point out their failings in this direction. It is equally clear that, despite one’s firmly held conviction that someone is a paranoid, lying toad such words should never pass your lips. But what about if you are asked to comment on someone with whom you have had a long-standing run-in in vitriolic ways but without resolution? Even that can be dealt with straightforwardly by stating the case in a matter of fact way: ‘I don’t agree with Professor X and we have a substantial ongoing scientific disagreement,so I am probably the wrong person to ask’. But if someone has spent their life patronising you, carefully patting you on the head till you are fed to the teeth with it, even though you feel they are themselves just second rate? How do you describe them in ways that are honest without allowing personal annoyances to creep in? Or what about the person who is being considered for a senior leadership role but you feel is totally self-serving if brilliant? Their inability to support junior colleagues is relevant to their ability to lead, but your views may be coloured by the particular junior individuals who have moaned at you about said behaviour and not a truly representational cross-section of the individual’s behaviour. In that case – in which I have found myself – I feel one really must raise the issue, and the circumstances in which you know about it, to allow the institution to make formal enquiries or at least make their own mind up.
The trouble is, none of these sort of questions fall under normal HR rules. This isn’t a case of a search committee gathering letters of recommendation, this is the kind of thing that can occur at a much earlier stage, and you can start blackening someone’s name completely accidentally. Sitting next to an overseas professor once at a conference dinner, someone who is a good friend of mine, we were having a lively conversation when he snuck into the conversation a question about a professor we both knew. Being suitably lubricated with alcohol and talking, as I thought, to a friend, I told him my views. The next day he came clean this person was being looked at by an institution he was involved with. I was livid. I felt I had had been tricked into an openness I would never have expressed if formally asked my views, and I told the person that my views obtained under these circumstances should be disregarded. Of course, comments once heard cannot be forgotten, asking for them to be disregarded is unlikely to mean they are struck through mentally, although I was subsequently reassured other people’s views had coincided with mine. But imagine life where you couldn’t dissect colleagues over a glass of wine with a friend in case your remarks were going to be used in a more official capacity at a later date – it could become very boring!
I may feel my comments are always justified, whatever the circumstances, I hope I never make malicious or in some sense unsubstantiated remarks. But they may still be personal remarks about character rather than purely professional statements, and hence bound to be more subjective even if still highly relevant to many roles. But I can see another aspect to this issue. The men who say of women they aren’t, for instance, tough enough to cope with some role because they (quite possibly unconsciously) assume that women simply cannot do some task merely because they are a woman. The remark may be made with the best of intentions, perhaps protecting the sweet little woman, but…..the damage may be done on totally unreasonable grounds. Is that so different from what I personally feel justified in saying about individuals (of either sex)? I would like to think it is, but it may sometimes be hard to know where the line is being drawn.