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In my opinion

The problem with annual performance evaluations

They should be used to inform and encourage, not to penalize.


With reference to Gerald Walton’s opinion piece, in which he declares that “academic underperformers must be called out,” I would like to suggest an alternative, more helpful approach to the problem he identifies. As dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Manitoba, from 1999 to 2004, it was my task to implement Article 35 of our collective agreement, which called for meaningful annual performance evaluations. The trick was to do that in a positive way rather than a destructive one.

In any large organization, there will be some people who are not doing all that they could, though my experience in the largest of our faculties, with around 500 employees, was that the number of underperformers was not large. Admittedly, with the tripartite structure of professors’ workloads – teaching, research and administration – almost everyone finds some of the tasks they are expected to do uncongenial. But, I found that the vast majority of my colleagues were doing a creditable job in all three areas of endeavor. And there are, of course, good reasons, both public and institutional, why this trichotomy of duties should be performed by every faculty member even if we find that we are better at one than another.

In designing our annual evaluations, I was mindful of the perception among both administrators and academic colleagues that there were a few people who were not pulling their weight and who needed to be confronted about that. But, it was also clear to me that almost all of these people were not content or satisfied with their colleagues’ perception of them or with their own sense of their performance. I also knew that there were indeed some inequalities of workload that had to be addressed. The draft proposals, which were discussed at faculty council, thus focused on the need to balance the fear of an unsatisfactory evaluation with the desire for improvement. This meant that I affirmed the clause in Article 35 of the collective agreement that insisted that annual evaluations should be primarily formative, not disciplinary, in intent.

The process began with an annual activity report listing the just completed year’s teaching responsibilities, publications and service commitments, as well as any forms of recognition. If in each category the work was satisfactory, a short written acknowledgement would follow. Heads were, of course, encouraged to acknowledge with compliments throughout the year any work that was evidently excellent. But where the activity report (or other evidence such as student evaluations) led to concerns about a person’s performance, heads of departments were required to meet with that colleague and discuss ways in which there could be improvement.

I hoped that there were questions that would naturally arise. Would, for example, someone struggling to get research done and into print benefit from a grade-marker, or a small grant to subsidize the cost of giving a paper at a conference? Or would someone getting poor student evaluations benefit from sympathetic discussions, workshops about teaching techniques, or even friendly classroom visitations? Would someone not doing enough service benefit from a candid talk, or respond to an appeal to stand for election to a particular committee? In any case, the results of the head’s discussion with his or her colleague would then be put in writing and a copy sent to the dean.

In short, weak performance was in most cases not just a matter of laziness or selfishness, but rather often a reflection of unhappiness not always, or even sometimes, admitted. There might be a history of scholarly rejections, or student complaints, which had undercut a person’s confidence or enthusiasm. Sometimes, too, intractable personal circumstances of family life were at the heart of ineffectiveness. These are, of course, matters that must be kept confidential and so are not, and should not be, visible to others. In proposing my implementation of annual performance evaluations, I tried to remember that no one wants to be seen as a failure, and everyone enjoys success. I felt that, if one were not succeeding, it would not help to be “called out” and punished. In my view, the best evaluations are those that identify problems where they exist, but also the ways and means of encouragement that can lead to improvement.

On the other hand, independent of the annual evaluations, it was my responsibility as dean to address persistent poor performance or wilful neglect of duty with appropriate sanctions. Within the framework of the collective agreement, in such cases the denial of salary increments or other disciplinary measures, such as letters of reprimand, are a legitimate response.

The language of Dr. Walton’s article expresses his frustration, impatience and anger about the fact that tenured senior faculty members are not being “held to higher account” for their unsatisfactory “output.” Such words seem to point to a lack of success in research. But I have also noticed that sometimes successful researchers are eager to avoid their responsibilities for undergraduate, especially introductory level, teaching, and that some of them protest, when asked, that they are too busy to share the load of serving on committees.

Dr. Walton would like someone to “light a fire” under his underperforming colleagues. In his judgment, there is a clear divide between those who pull their weight and those who do not, with a resulting inequality of workload. In my experience of 44 years, 10 of them in administrative positions, it has seldom been that simple.

Robert O’Kell is professor emeritus in the department of English, film and theatre, and dean emeritus of the faculty of arts, at the University of Manitoba.

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  1. Howard A. Doughty / February 24, 2017 at 07:58

    Faculty performance reviews should be used for information and encouragement … and yet they aren’t.

    It’s been almost fifty years since I sat on a university’s “salary, promotion and tenure committee.” In that time, I have spent most of my career in the Ontario (Canada) college system. So, my view is limited and perhaps distorted by that experience. At the same time, I have occasionally taken appointments to short-term positions in universities in Canada and the United States and maintain strong friendships with people who have spent a similar length of time at public and private universities throughout North America. So, my impression is that my experience is not categorically different than theirs, which is to say that the colleges are an exaggerated but still recognizable version of the senior institutions and, perhaps, a sign of things to come.

    Three factors must be kept in mind while discussing what “should” be the case.

    1. In the colleges, administrative personnel all the way from presidents to department chairs, are chosen by “management,” with, at most, only a consultative role played by faculty and, once in place, they are responsible only to management – never to the faculty over whom they exercise power as the academic equivalent of low-level supervisors in an industrial setting. This means that there is a formal, contractual relationship that, however pleasant and positive on a personal level, means that, in the final analysis, a “collegial” relationship is out of the question.

    2. In the colleges, the interest of administration/management is dictated from above and pervades the many (and growing) ranks of “management.” That results in choices of lower-level supervisors are made on criteria reflecting a corporate model in which the interests of faculty and even the academic integrity of various departments are marginalized, ignored or materially suppressed in comparison with corporate goals of “efficiency,” “accountability” and control. As a result, too many “managers” from the most senior levels to the lowly department chairs are selected with little or no consideration of their academic qualifications and commitments. So, rank incompetents and even people who are actively hostile to authentic education are too frequently placed in charge of the teaching staff with all the toxic consequences that naturally flow from such a conflict of interests.

    3. Over the past few decades, all levels of higher education have succumbed (albeit to varying degrees) to what I call the discount department store theory of postsecondary systems. Curriculum is commodified, research is commercialized, teaching is turned over to adjunct, partial-load, part-time, sessional, contract, contingent labor (call it what you will) in which Associate Professors become the functional equivalent of Walmart Associates. The market dictates academic specialties and standards, students are turned into “customers,” faculty “deliver” curriculum, quantitative measures of “quality” and “productivity” supplant notions of academic success and, in the end, the “customer is always right.”

    The result is a hierarchical system with top-down authority deployed in an organizational arrangement of domination in which the bulk of the faculty (with upwards of 80% of the teaching being done by faculty who can be dismissed without cause and almost no opportunity for redress) being systematically intimidated – with obvious consequences for their own self-esteem and any pretensions of “professionalism” they might harbor, never mind any hope of genuine academic freedom which, by the way, is categorically rejected as unbargainable in any negotiation for a collective agreement between the employer and the faculty.

    So, whatever annual performance evaluation “should” be, it is mainly a mechanism for imposing work discipline on teachers only a relative few of whom enjoy anything akin to “tenure” and who survive laregely because dismissing “permanent faculty” with substantial seniority is expensive, time-consuming and not worth the bother. I can talk this way because I have over 47 years in the system, which gives me the (perhaps foolishly inflated) notion that my remarks will likely be taken liberally as the utterances of an eccentric, possibly embitttered, and soon-to-be-retired old curmudgeon whose perspective is in, but not of, the 21st-century, and whose opinions can therefore be indulgently tolerated on the assumption that almost no one will take them seriously.

    None of this is to gainsay the fact that some people in “management” are excellent administrators and educators who “manage” with a light hand, display authentic concern for education in the better sense of the term, and who show consistent respect for their organizational inferiors. I can personally think of at least five among the twenty-six “bosses” from whom I have taken orders who have done everything they could to achieve excellence and even a sense of collegiality among their workers. That said, roughly 80% have not … and the results are obvious to anyone with even a mildly critical eye.

    Absent what would amount to an almost metaphysical shake-up in the entire corporate culture, honorable exceptions will continue to prove the rule. The chances for reform or reconstruction of the colleges are next to nil, and the major signs of systemic change in the universities point to the further erosion of intellectual independence as they experience what Harry Braverman called “the degradation of work” in settings that David Noble described as “digital diploma mills.” The prospects for improvement are awful.