Friday, February 16, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Retention Vote

An occasional commenter writes:

This is my first year on our college Rank, Salary, and Tenure (RST) committee. Everything seems to be going pretty smoothly, except for one probationary faculty member, who seems to be on the rocks. This is his third year, and he's already had three previous reviews, each of which has indicated serious problems with his classroom performance. His responses have been mostly denial and blame shifting, with a healthy dose of paranoia. (You know, "I can only conclude that people within my department are out to get me, because they're jealous." That sort of thing.)

So what's the problem? Recommend a terminal contract, and sing a few verses of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya." Well, the problem is that his department voted to renew his contract. We're not sure exactly what they were thinking. They definitely still have strong concerns about him, so it's not a matter of everything being all better now. Perhaps they want to give him one last chance. Perhaps they are just afraid of confrontation, and want us to be the bad guys.

Anyway, there is serious talk on the RST committee -- particularly from the continuing members, who went through all of this last year -- of reversing the department's recommendation. I'm of two minds. On the one hand, the department knows him best, and if they think he should get a chance, why should I say otherwise? On the other hand, it's pretty clear to me that he isn't going to fit in, either in the department or in the University as a whole. I think this relationship is beyond saving. I don't see any particular effort to improve, and so I can't see him getting tenure. Offering him another contract is simply wasting his time, not to mention being unfair to the students who will have him in class for the extra year. So, do you have any words of sage advice?

Although the org chart at my cc is different, I've seen the same basic problem -- those in the trenches are conflict-averse, so they pretend that all is well and secretly hope/fear that folks at higher levels will/won't do the dirty work for them.

I can understand your sense that 'the department knows best,' but I'll flip it around. If that's really true, why have an RST committee at all? There's no more effective way to make yourself irrelevant than to take 'conflict aversion' as your guiding principle.

I've made myself the bad guy a few times, and endured quite a bit of internal political crap for my troubles. But it was the right thing to do, and those are the moments I can point to when I wonder if I'm really adding any value. If not for me, they would have kept Amiable Idiot, and would never have hired Rising Star.

I'm increasingly convinced that 'faculty governance' and 'collegiality' are contradictory. True governance involves saying 'No' a lot. I've never -- not once -- seen a faculty 'peer' evaluation that wasn't over-the-top effusive. As a result, faculty peer evaluations carry absolutely no weight. If the faculty as a group wanted to reclaim the weight of these things, they'd have to bite the bullet in particular cases and call out mediocrity (or worse) when they see it. I'm not holding my breath. The basic, glaring, fundamental conflict of interest is simply too strong.

It's not fun to recommend adverse employment action. (It's even less fun to deliver the news personally.) But if you care about the students, the college, other job applicants, and the profession as a whole, you gotta do what you gotta do. I'd be worried about the mental health of anybody who actually reveled in these tasks, but you can't shirk every unpleasant task and still expect to be taken seriously when other tough decisions have to be made.

My only caveat, and it's a real one, is that you mention that this is your first year on the committee. Not knowing your college and its culture, it's entirely possible that the RST there was long ago relegated to 'ceremonial' status, with the real decision being made elsewhere. If that's the case, and being a hero wouldn't accomplish anything anyway, then it may not be worth the trouble. You'll have to judge the lay of the land to know whether this is relevant or not.

Sagacious and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.


Always enjoyable but can you change a metaphor please?

The line "in the trenches" is particularly grating for me.

We're not at war. The constant theme of your blog is that faculty and admin aren't really fighting a battle for resources. The same is true when we think about teachers and classrooms...

I'm not sure why such militant language crept in, and maybe I'm the only one who pays any attention to what it implies, but it just seems like a poor choice to describe the 'location' of anyone in the world of higher ed.
I don't see a military context to in the trenches despite the historical heritage of the term. It simply means being on the front lines- meaning being right in front of students and interacting with colleagues day after day after day. This is in contrast to administrators of any type who, by the nature of the beast (which unlike the military analogy above does not mean administrators are beasts by definition ;-) ) any type of administer is at least one step removed, and in some case several steps removed, and perceptions are different and consequences are different.

We had a situation that was complicated but almost the exact opposite of this and the people who have to live with it every day in the trenches are the ones who are most affected.
it's early - let's try administrator in the last reference, not administer . . .
"On the front lines," I think, also comes from the land 'o' warfare.

Maybe we can come up with some other set of language to mean, "being right in front of students and interacting with colleagues day after day after day."

Or, like I said, maybe no one else even notices.

Raising the more philosophical question:

Does the history of a term matter?
Shifting back to the topic posed by the poster.

You should vote to not renew. The faculty member has had several years to change and has not, they are unlikely to change in the future. These decisions only get harder the longer you wait. As Dean Dad points out, you will actually be giving the department an opportunity for positive change.
I would vote not to renew. Poor teaching that has NOT improved in 3 years is a BAAAD sign. Most campuses have all sorts of help to improve classroom instruction (peer mentoring, video-tapping, even sending faculty members to "teaching camp).

This guy has blown it. If he stays on, he'll continue to be a pedagogical nightmare. NO! A professorship is not a license to be an idiot in the classroom.
I agree, don't renew. You will not only be doing your own university a favor, but you will also be saving him from an adverse tenure decision on his CV, and that's a mercy.
One question that occurs to me. If they do not recommend reappointment will the department lose the line? I've seen that as a motivator more than once to assure a line not being sucked back to the general college allocation to be reassigned.
I wonder what Dean Dad and readers think of a different type of problem:
The very good teacher who does little else. Teaching is very good--according to visits and evaluations--and generally rigorous, but does not develop new courses. Service is adequate at best. Not around the office much. Research is adequate as well.

Regular conversations about service in particular have had no impact.

What would you do?
I think it is better not to prolong the person's expectation that they'll get tenure.

If it is the case that they haven't done anything to improve teaching... and you'd have records of particiaption in teaching conferences etc... then, it seems as if they don't really want to improve their teaching and continuing would lead them to be able to argue, 'well, I was good enough for X years, what has changed?'.

I'd say the earlier the better, perhaps the only thing that will change this person's ways is to be shown the door for poor classroom performance.
Why was the person hired in the first place? Has the department's research productivity been low, historically, for the institution and is this person a "star"? How's the quality of teaching for the rest of the faculty in the department--are they really good, on average, or average, or what?Is the person in question better/worse in particular kinds of classes (I know people who are wonderful in small classes, but awful in large classes, and vice-versa).

There's not, for me, enough context here to make a judgment. I will say that the faculty at my institution take these things seriously, and are quite willing to make a different recommendation from what a department recommends. So, for us, the decision matters, and matters a lot.
Like others, I can't necessarily recommend on the particulars of the case, but DD's advice to suss out the institutional role and function of the committee is wise. Talk to at least two senior colleagues you respect and get their take (just tell them you want to know this on general terms for the committee in future or whatever). You might be surprised.

I also find that many departments support or reject their own based on weird criteria: usually if they've met the minimum research requirement (or close enough) and if they're collegial. Frankly, sometimes they don't even crack the dossier and have no idea what are the issues with teaching, service (or even research!). If that's the case here, they might be operating in pure ignorance.
Dean Dad says, "I've never--not once--seen a faculty 'peer' evaluation that wasn't over-the-top effusive."

My experience--20 years as union president and/or grievance chair in a California cc--is much, much different. Out here, we call them Tenure Review Committees, and I've never, ever seen a TRC get rid of a truly bad teacher. I have seen TRC faculty members try to get rid of a few good teachers because of personality conflicts, intradepartmental politics, and, sadly, sexism and elitism. It's also been my experience that the flakier the faculty member, the more demanding and rigid s/he'll be when making tenure decisions. When the union has become involved in these fights (and they're almost always brutal ones), it's usually been administrators who have been our allies in reversing a bad tenure decision.

Given all the lip service we pay to shared governance and collegiality, it's heretical to say so, but I believe that tenure decisions--at least in community college colleges where research and publishing aren't part of the picture--should be made by administrators. When an administrator makes an arbitrary or capricious decision, we know how to fight. When a faculty member makes a bad decision, the fight is much more complicated. As a union guy, I'd much prefer to keep the distinction between management and labor absolutely clear.
Oh yeah, I forgot: rather than "in the trenches" or "on the front lines" I like "in the potato fields [those are the ones underneath the ivory towers]of academia."
I like "in the potato fields" rather than "in the trenches." I resent being called a ditch digger. ;-)
What are the other criteria for tenure, in this situation? My experience, from both sides of this issues, has been that poor teaching is just a red herring. Usually, there are other factors in the mix that for one reason or another can't be named.

And I'd also like if race and gender play a part in this. Professors of color face incredible hardship in the classroom just getting the students to respect them. And if the classroom and university is predominantyly white and the professor is black, or latino, or a woman, or all three, or is gay, or just plain non-traditional, white students tend to evaluate the professor more negatively. I've seen it happen. It's happened to me. And it's happening to my colleagues of color across the county.

Just something to think about.
Snowbound. Give them another course. They are good at it, obviously not interested in anything else. From each according to their talents.
Oooooo, CC Dean has troden wear Angels fear to prance. I love that the comments have become a version of Big Brother or Survivor... Boot him off the island! No, keep him! How revealing! Ironic, but Cold City U just had its tenure and promotions meetings a few weeks ago, and while most cases sailed through with generous approbation, there were a couple of exceptions that were interesting to watch, as exceptions always are.

Now, as CC Dean and perhaps others know, this little question of renewal is one I am, unfortunately, deeply familiar with. The issues involved are compelling, but perhaps due to confidentiality and anonymity we ultimately don't know much. Problems in teaching have many roots (and routes, per AfroProf), and as such need to be approached delicately. If indeed the asprof in question is just an unredeemable teacher, the humane response is renewal of contract with explicit detailing that tenure is a no-go, giving him or her time enough to find another job, perhaps at a place where their methodology would work better. Is this passing the buck? Only if the asprof in question is dangerous, a sexual predator, or a fool.

Of course, this means being explicit in a way some academics find difficult. But being humane in our dealings with 'non-performing' faculty is key to healthy institutional politics. Too often, academics want to avoid discomfort so send signals as obscure as Navajo telegraphings, a code so unbreakable that the denial of tenure is a life-altering (and threatening) shock. It doesn't have to be that way. Another aspect at play here is the ability of the candidate to comprehend his or her situation. Some of us will just go on, walk right over the precipice, in spite of all the warning signs. In those cases, all the warnings in the world won't prevent the tragic end.

Transparency, honesty, clear and attainable evaluatory goals, and constructive criticism are the hallmarks of a fair and decent tenure and promotion system. Not having any of those, or not having the ability to follow through on those principles, means that someone's heart is going to get broken, either the candidate who finds themselves out of a job suddenly and seemingly inexplicably, or the institution, saddled with a bad professor.

Good luck with all that. It is hard, thankless work.
This is SO ironic. I was just processing what to do about a "peer evaluation" I have done for a colleague. She chose me b/c she thought I would write a great evaluation. Yet, I found more wrong with her classroom than right with it.

Perhaps she was having a bad day. Perhaps she was incredibly nervous, being watched. Perhaps she is just not all that good. But I am struggling with how honest to be in my write-up.

I read DD's comments about peer evaluations and cringed. But I will say that even what I have written, which is quite kind and positive, is nowhere near as glowing as other evaluations I have written or received. It is like a job reference letter... you would have to read between the lines, but you could get the general impression that it wasn't great.
Oso Raro's comment seems spot on.

But I would ask if there is a built in grace year in the current contract structure to help this person find another position? If so, I would not renew. If not, then I would renew.
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