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September 27, 2009

As the  president of the faculty senate, I opened our recent annual awards ceremony with a few words of welcome.  Because I had never attended this ceremony before, I had no idea how many awards the university hands out each year.  It took nearly two hours to award all the distinguished professorships, university professorships, Regents awards, teaching awards, early career achievement awards, mid-career achievement awards, outstanding achievements in research awards, etc.   There were also more than 20 new named chairs announced this year.  It is much too late for me to receive an early or even mid-career award.  Nearly all of the endowed chairs went to engineers or agricultural  scientists.  It evidently pays to work in a field in which your graduates acquire skills that enable them to go out into the world and make money.

I already knew a surprising number of the awardees, but, in most cases, did not know much about their academic achievements.  With one exception, I did not know any of them professionally.  I had encountered them over the years on various college and university committees or socially.   For each awardee, there was a brief description of the achievement(s) for which they were being honored.  While listening to these, I inevitably began to compare my record with those of the awardees.  Overall, they were a stellar lot.  One had trained over 150 masters students and 75 PhDs.   One had brought in over 60 million dollars in research funding.  Another had published over 500 papers.  I will be the first to admit that I am not in their league.  However, many of the awardees’ records were more modest, and, in fact, they were comparable or, even in some cases, numerically inferior to mine.  Admittedly such snap comparisons of partial academic records are fraught with problems.  Nevertheless, I must admit that by the end of the awards ceremony I was feeling jealous.  Why haven’t I gotten an award?

At least a partial, if unsatisfactory, answer to that troubling questions was provided by another recent event that I attended,  a memorial service for a retired colleague who had died.  This was someone who had had a very long career; more than 50 years on the faculty, including a stint as department chair.   Even after retirement, she came into work every day to work on research projects.  I have always had the greatest respect and admiration for her.  She was an exceptionally hard worker who truly loved her academic field, teaching,  and her students.  Over the years, she received just about every university award available.  Perhaps the secret to getting an award is longevity.  Wait and awards will come to you. (Self promotion, however, can often significantly shorten your wait.)

In her case, and I suspect many others, there was another reason for her many honors, favoritism.  The head of the department’s awards committee was her good friend and co-worker.  You can’t get an award unless you get nominated.  It is the awards committee that decides who will be nominated for an award and that writes the nominations.  The  awards committee of this now defunct department was essentially one person, and, over the years, he mostly nominated the same person for every conceivable award.  In some cases, these nominations were justified.  She was an excellent teacher.  Unfortunately, in others they were not.  She was not the most distinguished or productive researcher in the department by a long shot.  Nevertheless, she was nominated and received a distinguished professorship, much to the amazement of most of the rest of the department.   What was truly sad was that a number of my colleagues who clearly deserved such an honor retired or died without any recognition of their professional achievements by the university.

Sour grapes is, I guess, even less admirable than jealousy.  Nevertheless, many other faculty members tell similar tales about their departments.  Their awards committees or committee chairs were also perceived to be biased against some members of the department or to be playing favorites.  Consequently, the process of awarding various kinds of professorships and other honors is tainted for many faculty.  As in so many other aspects of life, the cynic in me leads me to suspect that, when it comes to awards, it is not what you did, but only who you know that counts.   My guess is that most of the awardees at our recent awards ceremony deserved their awards.  I just wish that I was convinced that the most deserving faculty in the university had actually been nominated for all the awards.

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