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ADEPT Library - Case Studies -- Robert Sorel

Color Coded Key to Decision/Illumination Points in PTAC Cases without Storylines: Procedural and Bias. Insert annotated references as indicated

[Issues: soft vs. hard research, joint appointment, advanced assistant professor]

Robert Sorel, PhD from Cornell in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, with a dissertation on computational methods for modeling ion propulsion systems for deep space exploration, joined the faculty of a prestigious research university as an advanced assistant professor jointly appointed to AE/ME (primary appointment in AE), after working four years in AE/ME at Princeton. Sorel moved to the new university for personal and professional reasons. He desired to move his family closer to extended family, and he wanted to collaborate more closely with the AE/ME research center on propulsion systems.

Sorel’s research field is fairly new to the university, recently attracting attention to the work of a number of highly regarded researchers from respected programs of engineering and physics. After being at the university for one year, he published a paper with two colleagues and four graduate students in a top-tier journal. After two years at his new university, Sorel and collaborators attract a great deal of funding, some from NSF and some from the aerospace industry. They published their results in three of the top journals in the field on a consistent basis. Sorel published at a rate somewhat above that of his peers in such journals, but he maintained a funding level twice the average per capita funding in the AE department over the past four years.

The youthful, exuberant Sorel and a collaborator shared an award for a paper in his second year at the new university from a division of his professional society. The focus on their work earns Sorel a number of invitations to speak at international symposia, and sometimes other team members.

The success of their modeling effort encouraged Sorel’s team to start up a company consulting with aviation manufacturers. Although Sorel requested a one-year leave of absence to develop the company, his chair refused to grant it, citing the need for Sorel to establish himself at this university. The team nevertheless manages to spin off a company, which Sorel directs in his hours off campus.

Never assigned undergraduate courses, Sorel taught only graduate students specializing in his field. He received excellent evaluations from a relatively small number of students, who comment on how much they enjoy the competitive but social atmosphere of his classes and lab. He also advised a student receiving best student paper from professional society.

Sorel served as a member of departmental speakers’ committee. Most members of his unit regarded him as a difficult person to work with and made every attempt to avoid collaborations in teaching and research. He was not appointed to any other unit committees, nor has he been appointed to higher-level committees outside the unit.

Letters of reference for Sorel provided at the time of promotion and tenure were very positive, noting his quick start in a cutting-edge field and the significance of his research. Two prominent potential referees that Sorel did not know personally declined the opportunity to send letters, citing time issues. (add guidelines in interpreting letters of reference from best practices)

Discussion in the unit-level promotion and tenure committee centered on the intrinsic value of Sorel’s work, questioning whether the computer modeling he was personally credited with developing was as significant as the “hand-picked” reviewers (add guidelines from best practices) suggest and whether this kind of research was “substantial” enough to earn tenure (add guidelines on best practices for unit level peer review). One member also raised the issue of Sorel’s difficult personality as a problem affecting the scheduling of undergraduate courses and his lack of service contributions. (bias report on committee/service assignment; add reference to collegiality – paper by Stanley Fish?) Another member cited discomfort with Sorel’s manner of socializing with graduate students, hosting frequent social events with them, dressing casually like them, and spending considerably less times in social settings with faculty in the department, attending receptions for prominent seminar speakers, and so forth. (link to survey – GT culture, importance of social networking). This point was not picked up for further discussion. The committee chair recollects information he had heard at lunch about Sorel’s startup company and how it had been pursued against the wishes of the department chair; the committee chair suggested that perhaps Sorel needed to decide where he wanted to devote his interests and energy – in academia or industry. (link to survey on entrpreneurship; best practices for dealing with rumors) As Sorel was not involved in committee work or in undergraduate education, some committee members see him as lacking interest in the basic mission of the university. (add bias report on service appointments; best practices guidelines).

As a member of the committee, how would you respond to concerns that Sorel’s research is perhaps too specialized and lacks novelty, that he is very difficult to work with, and that some references apparently were not interested enough for some reason to write on his behalf?