In addition to being the time of new school-year resolutions, September is also the time for preparing the materials relevant to our evaluation by our department and faculty. I work at a University where faculty members are evaluated on a yearly basis; the result of the evaluation process is the award of a merit increment, which translates to some monetary increment to one’s salary.
During my tenure at my University, I have had a range of feelings for this process. Sometimes it was dread, resulting from uncertainty about whether I have been “good enough” to deserve the merit increment award that would place me, at least, in the “you are doing OK” category. Yet other times, it was hope and excitement, when after a particularly good (in my opinion) year, I was confident that I deserved to be recognized as “above OK” or even, in days of particular optimism, “excellent”. And sometimes, especially after tenure and promotion, it was just bored with the process, when the toil of remembering every “contribution bit” seemed disproportionate to the meaning of the anticipated merit award and much more so to the corresponding monetary award it would imply.
So I have tried to think about how this process might be rehabilitated to be constructive and productive as opposed to a waste of time for the faculty members, who feel like they have to pad their reports with every possible “good deed” that might place them above the bar to the next increment, and for the evaluation committee, who have to pore over these materials in an effort to fairly recognize their colleagues’ contributions, as they divide the pie and doll out the necessarily meager increments.
It seems to me that this process has potentially the opportunity to do two things.
The first is to give faculty members the impetus to reflect on their agenda and to consolidate the past year’s work in an overall coherent vision. Personally, I have found this process to be “cathartic” every time I had to go through it, namely at tenure and promotion and when I had to write a substantial proposal. After each of these times, I felt a new sense of purpose in my research activities as they all were more weighty, building on a longer past work and laying the foundation for a longer term contribution, which, goes without saying, should have a higher impact potential. I think, as faculty members, we all need to believe that our work matters in that it actually contributes to our collective knowledge and it is hard to hold on to that belief if we cannot see a long line of contribution from our past, through the present, towards a future. Academy is a long-term process, not so much slow, but rather “for the long haul,” an endurance race with some sprints intertwined.
The other objective of the faculty-evaluation process should be to give the University administration the opportunity to communicate to the faculty the values for which the University stands. This is the time to recognize the contributions that the University has identified as desirable in its vision and mission statements. I do not think that there is any University that stands for “the most number of publications” and “the best teaching-evaluation scores.” Instead, most Universities profess a vision of high-impact research, high-quality productive teaching and learning, involvement with the scientific community at large, and civic engagement.
The evaluation process and its products, including any associated awards of merit increments, should be intelligent, broad and flexible enough to somehow believably reflect these values. When the process degenerates to a zero-sum game, where a money pile has to be divided in a way that corresponds to each individual faculty contributions, it becomes easier to simply come up with a quantitative formula translating the numerical entries in the individual’s submitted report (papers, grants, money, students, course evaluations) into a merit increment. But there is no vision worth envisioning simply involving the maximization of these numbers. And this oversimplification of the process leaves faculty (especially more senior ones who have invested themselves in the institution and have bought into this vision) feeling cheated when during the year they attempt to make the vision happen and, at evaluation time, what matters boils down to a few numbers.
I wish I had some practical proposal on how the process should work. I don’t. However, it seems to me that part of any reform should consider stripping the process from most (all?) numbers (that lead into oversimplification temptation), infusing it with more memory (looking at a longer time span than a year) and leaving room for more reflection (looking at the faculty members’ perceptions of their contributions).
(The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.)