Thursday, October 27, 2005


Showing Up

What do you do, as an administrator, when (you have good reason to believe) a tenured professor regularly fails to show up for class?

I have to confront this issue, and I’m not liking my options. One option, of course, is to get a copy of the professor’s schedule, stand outside the appropriate classrooms at the appropriate times with a clipboard and a stopwatch, and take notes. But I don’t want to do that. The union would accuse me of singling this professor out, which would be true to the extent that I haven’t made a habit of doing that for others (and have no plans to). I’d look ridiculous, the example would be toxic, and it’s not like I don’t have other things to do. Even if I got good data, I wouldn’t have anything to compare it to, since many classes run at the same hour and I can only be in one place at a time.

Students (or students’ parents) sometimes report it, but they frequently don’t. The temptation to coast is simply too powerful for most to resist. (This wouldn’t have happened at my previous school – there, students would have (did) stormed my office, demanding immediate refunds. Different culture.)

I asked the department chair if the reports I’ve been receiving are true – he didn’t know, and he hasn’t been able to ask the professor in question due to her/his frequent absences. A classic catch-22: if you never show up, you can’t get busted.

In the business world, the answer would be easy: give the AWOL employee walking papers, and hire someone who actually wants the job. Tenure defeats that strategy, even though I know there are plenty of adjuncts out there who would give relatively important body parts for a job like this. Between tenure and the faculty union, any discipline beyond the informal ‘cut the crap’ is incredibly costly and difficult.

As with most low performers, this one knows the faculty contract forward and backward.

Any ideas out there? I’m actually losing sleep over this.

I think getting the students to come forward is the best option. Can you overtly ask them how often the prof shows up? I'm sure you can convince a few of them to say something.
Ye gods, this really sucks.

Okay, how about this approach:

1. Gather evidence from students and, if somehow possible, other faculty, indicating frequent absence. Non-faculty staff should be used as a last resort. (A secretary might know, but narc-ing might compromise him/her something fierce. Not good.)

2. Call AND email the prof in question, demanding end to practice. Ignore any and all excuses, pointing out that "if you had a good reason, you could have arranged for another prof to fill in or at least warned the students. But you didn't." Bring the offending prof into your office and grill ‘em, if you can. If you can’t, hey, further proof of the prof’s contempt for the institution.

3. Assuming this doesn't work (and it probably won't—he/she will “be good” for a week then relapse), bring together as many members of the faculty union and department as possible. Sit 'em down and show them the evidence.

4. DO NOT LET THEM LEAVE until they agree on a course of action more substantive than "I'll talk to him/her." Say you already have, and that the situation has advanced beyond such weak measures. Point out to the faculty that said jerk is making them look bad and injuring not only the students but the reputation of the school. Letting it slide indicates that they don’t care about any of that.

5. Present the faculty present with two options. One: decide the discipline for this person immediately. Two: admit you don’t care and leave the students and the department’s reputation to suffer. There is no option three. Again, DO NOT LET THEM LEAVE the meeting until they have chosen an option.

6. If they take option number one, work out the exact details of how it will work. Seal off any weasel-holes (e.g., variations on “I’ll talk to him/her about it”). Establish a timetable. If they take option number two, you are no longer the bad guy—you are taking over responsibility for those who have refused to do the right thing. By giving the faculty first shot, you’ve respected their turf. They can’t complain too loudly after that. (They will, but not as loudly.)

Could this work?

Hell, I don’t know. Maybe visit the department a lot and get the rumor mill going. Establish some peer pressure, see if that works.

If all else fails, dude, this is the one situation where twirling your moustache and cackling is the right thing to do. You may have to suck it up and be the Bad Guy. Let the gripers mutter and do whatever you can to save the class and hose the prof.

God, I’m annoyed at this nitwit and I don’t know anything about the prof. Grrrrr.
This may be naive, but isn't asking the prof in question outright the best possible solution? I mean, if they aren't showing up to such an extent that you can't find them on the premises, that in itself is a pretty clean indicator of the problem.

It doesn't have to be confrontational, and perhaps can serve as an informal warning to the prof that someone has noticed something is amiss.
Just leak the problem to the press and sit back. Not only will this problem prof be taken care of, it will serve to focus the attention of the those who are left.

It's startling that not only do you have this problem, it's become so routine you can blog about it. I don't recall a prof ever missing a class during all my undergraduate years. We did have a few classes where the prof largely wasted his time and ours by going off topic, but the idea of a no-show, without an explanation, was unthinkable.

Frankly, I don't understand the wisdom of tenure, given that it is so casually abused.
I've had this problem!

1) Asked the Dept Head to look into it. Nothing happened.
2) Called the instructor in for a heart-to-heart. She whined excuses saying her classes were too early in the AM. We started her sections later in the day (10AM) which she was late for as well. As was she late for her evening classes!
3) After 3 semesters of the same problem, with appropriate documentation of lateness, meetings to discuss corrective actions, and no corrective actions taken, we seperated her from the love of the institution.

This is a classic example of why Right to Work laws are good and the tenure system needs to go!

I agree that this is a huge problem, and I've been suprised over the years to find out how much something like this goes on. That is, there are those profs on any campus that one knows the students don't like and don't think are good profs, but I've always assumed they at least fulfill the minimum requirements of their job, i.e., show up! But they don't always. I had a former colleague who apparently regularly showed up at least 20 minutes late to class. When her chair called her on this, apparently her response was, "Well, I'm only human." WTF???

Which is just to say that I have no suggestions for you - just that I can't imagine being an administrator trying to deal with this! I think the suggestions that everyone else has given sound very good.
I would say talk to the professor in question, and ask what gives? It gives him/her a chance to put their side of the story, and it means that they now know you know, and they get your drift that you don't want to hear such things in future. So he/she considers him/herself warned.

With any luck, this might fix the problem. Otherwise, you have a much stronger platform to stand on when you go collecting the hard evidence you need to discipline the person.
Well, depends on how you do it:

1. Forward an email concerning the staff attendance policy to EVERYONE. That might prompt that prof to start getting his acts together.

2. Like other have said, just directly talk to the prof. When you receive complaints, you should not just disregard it. Or else you aren't doing your job. Maybe you guys can work something out.
I have to disagree with alerting the media -- that could drag down the reputation of the entire college, which I don't want to do.

The other ideas are helpful, though.

This isn't going to be pretty.
Dangit, I left a long comment here earlier, & it got eaten.

I'm totally with Harvey on this one. Tenure is a guarantee of academic freedom; it is NOT a cover for complete irresponsibility. I'd bet if you came down hard on this guy, the rest of the dept. would (at least secretly) love you for it. If the union has any brains at all, it'll back you on this. The faculty contract must include some stipulation that even tenured faculty fulfill the basic requirements of their job, doesn't it?

That said, it's worth talking to the guy first, both as a warning and to find out if there is any kind of explanation. We had a situation where it looked as though an adjunct was regularly skipping Friday classes... when we checked a little closer, it turned out that she had assigned a substantial (and well-designed) group project to her students, and had given them a couple of free sessions to work on it outside of class.
We have a couple of faculty who regularly cancel classes, don't return graded work, give final exams that consist solely of a simple crossword puzzle with simple words from the class (an exam which he frankly admitted he created so that his middle-school daughter could grade it for him), etc. The rest of the faculty really resent this guy, what with our actually working hard at our jobs and all, and I think we'd be happy to have someone come down hard on him and insist that he actually do his work. That being said, it's never been entirely clear to me just what tenure does and does not guarantee faculty members; what options do administrators actually have when faculty don't do their jobs? (I know that's what your original question was, so clearly I am no help on this.)
I have zero helpful advice on this situation, but I do have to chime in on the "this is what's wrong with tenure" arguments. Rare cases make bad law, and dumping tenure because it's sometimes abused amounts to throwing the baby out w/ the bathwater. (Like how I threw those cliches together?) I can't help but think that once tenure is abolished, we'll *all* be adjuncts.
This kind of behavior is frequently blamed on the tenure system or collective bargaining. My experience suggests that neither is to blame.

I work at a public community college that has neither. I tried at the last institution where I worked to organize faculty. We were under censor from the AAUP for past violations of academic freedom, so we brought in the national folks from DC to help, including the national president of the AAUP. They really didn't understand community college culture, especially where I worked.

Nonetheless, we formed a faculty senate and an AAUP Chapter, voted on a tenure policy the AAUP state and national folks helped to write, and the faculty voted it down. One faculty member told me the proposal "smacked of unionism."

I was surprised--I was one of three faculty members who would have had to be reviewed--everyone else would have been grandfathered.

My point in all of this is that the community college culture is sick. We don't hold faculty to demanding standards, whether the institution grants tenure or not. The faculty at my former institution realized that it would be very unlikely that they would be fired, and all of the AAUP policy was likely to get in their way.

Until senior adminstrators are willing to back their managers (deans), it won't really matter how much evidence you gather. In the meantime, counseling the faculty member is your next best alternative.
I don't know if community college culture is fundamentally sick -- I don't think the culture at mine is. Each school is different. I'll agree that the rapid ratcheting-up of expectations on faculty over the last 20 years or so has created a weird disparity in qualifications, where the most senior faculty are often the least qualified. There's something wrong with that, but there it is.

Bitch, Ph.D. has a point, though I wouldn't go as far with it as she does. There are colleges out there without tenure, but with full-time faculty (like my previous employer). I'd prefer to see the concept of tenure both clarified and somewhat scaled back. As the AAUP originally defined it in 1940, it was supposed to expire at the normal retirement age; it was never intended to last a lifetime. We need to get back to that. And even tenure, I submit, should be contingent on meeting certain basic professional obligations of the job, such as actually showing up for work.

Eventually, though, I can't help but wonder how long tenure is for this world. It runs so completely against everything else in this culture, and needlessly offends so many people, and creates so much false hope among new grads, and raises the legal costs of terminating deadwood exponentially, and...
Do you have someone who is a grievance rep for the union at your school? At the CC where I work, one faculty person is grievance rep, and we're supposed to call him if we are subject to disciplinary measures by a Dean. He would then be our advocate through the process.

[A digression: a Political Science Professor was disciplined for sending an e-mail with politics in it... apparently academic freedom doesn't extend to CC faculty and instead we're supposed to follow the same don't-be-political-on-state-owned-equipment as someone in the Motor Vehicles Department would be. Grrr. So the Grievance Rep was able to get this faculty person's Official Letter of Reprimand removed from his file if he played well with others for a year.]

Anyway, my sense is that the grievance rep can sometimes run interference and act as a referee between faculty and administration -- obviously with a pro-faculty bias, but also with an eye to finding the best solution. Most CC faculty work incredibly hard and are frustrated and annoyed by colleagues who don't work as hard.

I think you need to let this faculty member know (perhaps under the guise of concern? "Is everything okay? Is there some reason that you're missing lots of class?") so he'll know he's not flying under the radar anymore.

Good luck! Keep us posted.
I wish I had advice, but Dream School has this exact problem, and our Dean has no options. It just sucks, and it seems to me that students would be the best option.
We had this problem. Senior tenured faculty. Union contract. Union contract says that faculty will show up for class and office hours. It took a year of documentation and written warnings, but tenure did not protect him because he wasn't actually doing his job.

Thank goodness the guy was such a flake, though. He'd gotten past a couple of harrassment charges (the young women backed out), and as much as most of us wanted his ass nailed on that (and before anyone jumps to his defense, he was icky-touchy-feely with his female colleagues, too, but most of us just avoided him after a couple of conversations where we were backed into corners), we were overjoyed to see him gone.
There's a professor at my community college who does this. The guy was 15 minutes late to class (he does this all the time), blamed it on the "conejo grade traffic," and even joked that he's recovering from a hangover and that his favorite friends are "Jack and Daniel." He came into the class smelling like weed and looked like he didn't take a shower. . .

A friend of mine filed a complaint with the dean over this, but she laughed it off saying, "We've never had problems with this professor before." I guess it's just another case of either administrative laziness or protecting their own. Things like this make me (and others) distrust deans and administrative people because in the end, mostly they're just each other's cronies.
If you can get the union on your side, I think you're golden, so I'd start from that direction.
Read the prof's contract carefully. If there isn't a provision in there for actually completing teaching duties then the management team has dropped the ball. If there is, then document and enforce it.

I come at this from the other side: unionized teacher. We've had colleagues that we wanted fired, but the administration couldn't be bothered to do their job and document the misconduct.

Sure, our union would have enforced the contract, made certain that the offending teacher was given appropriate warnings etc, but that is simple protection of due process. Once the paperwork was completed, and if the offending teacher had not reformed, then they would have been gone -- IF administration had bothered to start the process.
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