David Porreca, FAUW President
This post owes its origin to a discussion we had both at the last FAUW Board meeting and a subsequent e-mail conversation among Board members. Essentially, the question boils down to asking whether all of the effort expended on the annual assessment of merit for faculty members provides a net benefit of productivity for all the relevant stakeholders: individual faculty members, our university as an institution, and academia writ large?
In other words, what purpose does our current scheme of merit evaluations serve?
Just a few years ago, FAUW and the university’s administration undertook a review of the faculty evaluation process, and decided to maintain the broad structure of our current scheme of performance evaluations while encouraging department chairs to use “the full dynamic range” of designations from 0 to 2, in 0.25 increments. Data regarding the distribution of merit scores is provided in the appendices to the Work-Life Balance Report that was released earlier this year. Salary increments based on merit are drawn from a different pool of money than the scale increase that FAUW negotiates on its members’ behalf.
As we all know, this process of annual merit evaluations involves a substantial amount of effort from faculty members filling in forms and templates every January. As anyone who has been department chair or who has contributed to a departmental evaluation committee knows all too well, those templates and CVs are only the beginning. An unquantified number of very expensive hours gets invested annually in the evaluating, assessing, comparing and ranking of these materials once submitted, and the resulting evaluation rankings get yet another round of assessment and vetting at the various Deans’ offices across campus.
As one might expect under circumstances where professionals are judged against each other, considerations of fairness on the one hand, and of inevitable professional jealousy on the other, create fertile ground for the questioning of the resulting evaluations. A member must determine whether s/he has the wherewithal to challenge the chair’s decision, perhaps as far as an appeal to the Dean, and such an appeal would involve an investment of working hours for all concerned, faculty, academic administrators and staff.
In addition to these resource-consuming mechanisms mandated by policy and the Memorandum of Agreement, there is also the human angle of productivity loss due to the mental anguish that fretting over this forest of procedures causes.
Considering all of the above, does the net difference between an evaluation score of 1.5 vs. 1.75 on a professor’s salary justify the investment of human capital into all the mechanisms described above? In a nutshell, it would seem that never has so much time been invested for the sake of so small a net difference.
ON THE OTHER HAND…
If one compounds that difference over a professor’s whole career, the differences do add up. Annual performance evaluations are essential for a university with high aspirations.
They serve the role of both carrot and stick.
In principle, they reward those faculty members who, by virtue of having more talent or working harder, accomplish more as teachers, researchers and administrative colleagues. These people expect and deserve better raises in recognition of their accomplishments.
At the same time, evaluations serve as a reminder to the lazier side of our nature that we
should be making strong contributions as researchers, teachers and administrative colleagues. Despite what we like to believe about ourselves, we are not solely driven from within to be good professors. We need help from knowing that some sort of annual accounting has to be provided.
No system of performance evaluation can be perfect. Given our human nature, a perfect system for doing such business is not possible. All that an institution can do is try its best, and continue to seek improvements towards fair outcomes. But “fair” is a tough target to hit in this endeavor, and there is no getting around it.