Is It Worth Revisiting Faculty Evaluation?
Faculty evaluation is an old subject that never seems to go away. New volumes on evaluation continue to appear and articles are found with regularity in periodicals for university administrators. In addition, conferences for chairs usually present a number of sessions on this topic. Books would not be published, articles would neither be written nor accepted, and conference sessions would not be held unless they were purchased, read, or heavily attended, respectively. Thus, there is a continuing appetite for information on this topic.
A recent national survey of department chairs (Cipriano, R. E. and Riccardi R. L., The Department Chair, 25(2), 3-4, 2014) identified evaluating faculty as the number one essential skill for chairs. At the same time, conducting annual faculty evaluations shows up high on the list of unpleasant chair tasks. One might conclude that the answer to the title question is “yes.”
A new level of attention on issues concerned with faculty evaluation emerged about 15 to 20 years ago. A major factor in this new emphasis is the accountability movement in higher education, in which institutions have to demonstrate their value and effectiveness, and faculty must justify holding tenured positions by ensuring continued productivity and teaching success. This has culminated in many institutions requiring substantive post-tenure reviews of all faculty as a way of avoiding the threat of legislatures to eliminate tenure altogether.
In this case, “substantive” means a thorough review, one with the consequence of dismissal if unsatisfactory performance is not addressed within a defined period of time. To place this in an extreme context, imagine this change for an associate professor who is new to the chair position and who must evaluate, for the first time in two decades, a senior, full professor who has been performing poorly for years without consequence. This chair would almost certainly feel the need for advice.
A second factor impacting the faculty evaluation came into play with the elimination of mandatory retirement. While this is not always a negative, it can be a problem when some of these faculty are no longer competitive for funding, struggle with technology, or do not connect with today’s students due to generational differences.
The frequency of faculty staying on has been exacerbated by economic factors and by the rapidly rising cost of health care. Faculty caught in these situations are often disappointed that they must stay when they had hoped to be elsewhere. Chairs facing reviews of this population are challenged on one hand to evaluate on the local standards of productivity, while on the other having the responsibility for helping these faculty through referrals to campus resources, modified assignments, special assistance, and personal wisdom.
The process, step by step
Assuming that there is an annual faculty evaluation process, where does the new chair begin in preparing for the process? This is an especially critical question if the chair is an external hire and is, thus, someone who has never been through the local process.
A recommended first step is the establishment (or review), with the collaboration of the faculty, of a set of measures and standards for performance in the areas of faculty responsibility (teaching research/scholarship, service, and others, in accord with institutional tradition). The list of items should have both quantitative and qualitative components (how many? how well?) and be as varied as feasible.
Having multiple measures allows for individual faculty activities, strengths, and interests. Elements of the list can be aspirational in the sense that they are an attempt to develop new behaviors, and placing them on the list sends the message that they matter (or will) “count.” Collaboratively defining the evidences to be used in the process of faculty evaluation is an important step because it brings clarity and a sense of ownership to the faculty.
Following from step one, the chair must collect data on the established measures. Much of this should come from the faculty member’s written or electronic annual report. Additional information (e.g., surveys, evaluations done by peers and students, grant activity) may be provided by others.
Once the chair has all the information and has reviewed the previous year’s evaluation with special emphasis on goals for achievement or, in some cases, for improvement, the next step is to schedule face-to-face meetings with each faculty member. The recommendation to meet with the faculty is based on the experience that much is revealed during the conversation.The one-on-one meeting has importance beyond confirming and updating the data input. It provides the chair with the opportunity to give feedback to all. In some cases it can be as simple as saying things like “your performance across all areas of responsibility has been stellar,” or “you have met or exceeded all of your ambitious goals set last year.” Earned accolades have a positive impact on future performance. The chair should be attentive to opportunities to provide formative feedback to help even high-performing faculty meet their goals. Adding a statement to the comments above, such as “I will provide resources for a visit from your new collaborator in order to facilitate the development of your joint proposal,” might be an appropriate way to pledge support.
Some of the faculty, hopefully only a few, will be found to be in need of improvement. While this could be one of those difficult conversations, the chair should make the case based on the evidence and listen carefully to the response. In those cases where there is denial of responsibility, the chair must be firm in setting the expectation that improvement be made. To demonstrate support to effect the changes necessary and for the efforts of the faculty member, the chair should be prepared to offer or direct the faculty member to appropriate assistance.
In both the case of outstanding faculty performance and that of needed improvement, the chair should be prepared to offer support that will facilitate further growth or change the trajectory, respectively. This mandates that chairs become familiar with campus resources and what they have to offer (e.g., Center for Teaching Excellence, Research Office for grant writing) and that they develop a cadre of faculty who can serve as mentors/consultants or as connections to others across campus and perhaps beyond. In those cases where concrete resources are required (e.g., for travel, a student assistant, released time, an instrument), department budgets may be tapped or appeals made to the dean, with the latter prearranged where possible.
A final element of the meeting is to set goals for the coming year. This exercise serves the purposes of helping faculty structure their work, demonstrating chair interest in and commitment to success, and, in cases where performance is lagging, setting expectations for improvement. It also gives the chair a starting point for reviewing faculty accomplishments in the next review cycle.
Now it is time to author or revise the written review. This should follow from the conversation, with all evaluative remarks supported by evidence from the collected materials. This is another opportunity for praising excellence, pledging support, and setting the bar for improvement. Many colleges and universities use specific language to describe the level of faculty performance; the recommendation is that chairs use this language to avoid ambiguity. Revisions to correct errors of fact are acceptable, but chairs should take care to avoid negotiating language that diminishes the rightful impact of the evaluation. The final acts of the process are both parties signing off on the final document and submission by the chair.
What has been presented here is a skeletal structure with several recommendations for chairs who are new to or uncomfortable with conducting faculty evaluations. The final recommendation is that they review the literature on faculty career stages and on facilitating faculty career path changes for additional insights on maintaining faculty vitality.
N. Douglas Lees is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.