Skip navigation
Adventures in Academe

One size does not fit all with promotion, tenure and review

We need better ways to assess faculty performance.


I’ve recently had three opportunities to think about ways that scholarly activity is evaluated (and, therefore, valued) within the academy: first, as I compiled my sabbatical report and had to account for a year’s worth of productivity; second, when I was asked to serve as an external reviewer for a full professor-ship at a different university; and, third, during a retreat with the 2015 cohort of the 3M National Teaching Fellows. In all three contexts – as the one being evaluated, as the one doing the evaluation, and as a member of a group of educational leaders reflecting on the mechanisms of assessment in higher education – it struck me that, with some notable exceptions, we are going about the process of promotion, tenure and review ass-backwards.

When it comes to evaluating faculty performance, the one-size-fits-all model we use in many universities – roughly 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching and 20 percent service – must be reimagined if Canadian universities are to “support and sustain an innovative, resilient and diverse society” of global learners in the 21st century (to quote a notice for a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant). The current formula for evaluating faculty performance not only fails to incentivize visionary approaches to higher education but also creates barriers to creative and collaborative design.

The scenarios are familiar across institutions: ask colleagues to join a new committee only to be told that if it isn’t a senate committee it “doesn’t count” towards service. Invite colleagues to create new interdisciplinary initiatives only to be told that, until they get promoted to full professor, any free time or energy must be directed to research. Urge colleagues to participate in professional development opportunities related to enhancing student learning only to be told that their efforts are best spent elsewhere.

You certainly cannot blame faculty for the state of affairs: they operate within the parameters established and enforced by their collective agreements. Failing to conform comes with consequences, including stalling at the rank of associate professor and other deterrents, financial or otherwise. The cycle is further reinforced when the individuals responsible for evaluating faculty performance are those who have successfully navigated the system themselves. In order to disrupt this system, we have to change the concrete ways we acknowledge, legitimize and reward scholarly activity.

Creating separate teaching and research streams doesn’t fix the problem: it only reinforces the system. The pervasive assumption is that these three spheres of scholarly activity are compartmentalized and mutually exclusive rather than cross-fertilizing and mutually en-riching. Furthermore, the division inevitably creates hierarchies that privilege research over teaching and service.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating for easier pathways to promotion. The bar should be set to exemplary. If we change the way we think about how work is valued within the academy – or at the very least expand the current definitions of what constitutes scholarly activity – we can design assessment tools to encourage individuals to reach their optimal capacities for the greatest impact on diverse communities.

Paradigm shifts happen slowly. By changing each repetition ever so slightly, we can disrupt the “regulatory fiction” of assessment (an approach inspired by Judith Butler’s work on disrupting traditional and limiting gender norms through recitations). With this in mind, I wrote my sabba-tical report strategically: instead of merely listing my peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations, I included activities such as public scholarship and community outreach, fellowships and awards for educational leadership, editing and publishing undergraduate research, new course proposals and senate reports, website and social media design, capital campaign fund-raising, non-peer reviewed articles, and a whole range of otherwise invisible activities that might be considered under an expanded definition of scholarly activity.

At institutions of higher learning, we become greater than the sum of our parts when we extend beyond knowledge transfer to knowledge mobilization, reward educational leadership and multidisciplinary collaborations, legitimize forms of scholarly activity such as advocacy and social justice, value scholarly work that extends beyond peer review, and recognize the creation of tools and resources that create change in communities, especially those at risk. In doing so, we fulfill our mandate of supporting and sustaining an innovative, resilient and diverse society.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Prof. Jack M. Miller / February 24, 2016 at 15:57

    The observations in Jessica Ridell’s article make eminent sense and should be employed by reviewers of P & T applications, Departmental, Faculty and University P&T Cpmmittees at all our institutions. We tried to take these “one size doesn’t fit all” criteria when I was on and later chaired our University P & T Committee, when I was for 10 years an adviser to P & T candidates on behalf of our Faculty Union, and when I became Dean of Graduate Studies and AVP, Research. I’m surprised that 11 years after my first retirementthese questions still come up.
    What do you do with a faculty member who insists on listing a Letter to the Editor of Weekend Magazine as a refereed publication, but doesn’t list 3 books he has in publishers bound review proofs! Or faculty, especially women, who leave out half the associated work they have done that would count. In some cases Course Prep constitutes Research when no one else anywhere is teaching that particular new topic/sub field. A committee need not be a “Senate” committee — some Senate Committees do scut work, while Board or Faculty Committees may be involved with what amounts to RESEARCH for the particular faculty member. I could go on BUT. In June I will retire for the second time after 50 years at Brock.

  2. Pierre Zundel / March 29, 2016 at 15:15

    An optimal tenure and promotion system will combine high performance expectations with a more flexible mix of teaching, research and service. It is very rare that faculty maintain the same balance of those activities over a career in academia. There are very good examples of workload allocation models (e.g., University of Guelph collective agreemement) in which faculty and administration agree on a particular mix of workload effort that balances the faculty member’s interests and passions with the needs of the institution. That workload “distribution of effort” then becomes the basis for subsequent evaluations over an agreed period of time (approximately 5 years). If the information base used for assessment of each of these components of academic work is sufficiently rich, comprehensive and appropriately evaluated, good feedback and decisions can be rendered in support of this more organic approach to Tenure and Promotion. With this kind of model, there is no need for streaming of faculty nor for concerns about first and second class academic citizens.