Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Automatic for the People

Although I understand that this is somewhat unusual nationally, my cc has traditional ranks (instructor, assistant prof., associate prof., prof.) for full-time faculty. The promotion steps come with notably small pay raises, but the faculty take them very seriously nonetheless.

Having gone through this cycle a few times now, I'm bracing myself for some difficult conversations. Apparently, there are some wildly disparate ideas of what merits promotion.

Some folks believe that promotions should be effectively automatic for the people with a certain number of years served – a sort of longevity bonus by another name. Others don't go that far, but do want a set of clear, bright-line criteria that take most or all of the judgment out of the process. Some believe in clear sets of categories, but shy away from bright lines. And some believe that anybody a given department recommends should be a slam-dunk.

(I'll stipulate here that R1's are not useful reference points for cc's in this respect. The time and resource allocations of the jobs are so wildly different that the two really need different criteria.)

For the promotion from untenured to tenured, I'm sympathetic to bright lines. For post-tenure promotions, put me in the 'clear categories, but no bright lines' camp. I make the distinction based on what I think is the different impact of the two. The point of tenure is up-or-out, so failing to get it means finding another job. But for someone with tenure, getting shot down for Professor this year means sticking around to take another shot next year. This strikes me as considerably less onerous.

Tenure complicates the issue terribly. From the dean's office, the major issue is that once somebody reaches full professor status, you have no more leverage with them. (This is especially true in a cc, where we don't have the budget for goodies like research assistants or lab space or significant travel.) Since there's no such thing as 'demotion,' you don't want to hand out promotions lightly.

Anecdotally, it seems that full professor titles were handed out relatively promiscuously in decades past, and some folks took the title as entitlement to a lifetime of teach-and-go-home. Unfortunately, that also sets a sort of expectation among the next crop of candidates, who react to rejection by pointing incredulously to some of their 'senior' colleagues. I have to concede the observation, but the logical conclusion of that argument would be that you can never, ever, under any circumstances, raise standards. And that strikes me as absurd on its face.

The 'all power to the departments' view has several flaws. First, and most obviously, it means that you have as many different promotion standards as you do departments. Legally, that strikes me as shaky at best, especially in a collective bargaining environment. Second, the reality of the situation is that many chairs won't vote against anyone, ever, for fear of losing the position entirely. Third, some departments are so thoroughly inbred, or so completely under the thumb of a domineering chair, that the judgment would reflect something other than what it's supposed to reflect. (That could also be true of any given administrator, of course, but the difference is that we're actually accountable for our actions, since we don't have tenure.)

To my mind, it's more than fair to require that the categories for evaluation be spelled out and adhered to from the very beginning, but you need to leave room for the inevitable uniqueness of each case. How do you compare invited performances for a music professor to invited talks by a sociologist? I understand the fear-based impulse to take all individual judgment out of the process, but to do that would almost inevitably result in a dumbing-down of the entire system.

Proprietary U also had academic ranks when I was there, even though it didn't have tenure. I kind of liked the outlines of its promotion system, even if the details were sometimes nuts. In outline, any given professor would be evaluated each year on a given set of criteria (there were six when I left; I don't know how many there are now). Each criterion would get a percentage weight. You'd get a score in each area. The weighted total score would convert to a certain number of points towards the next rank. When you accumulated enough points to get the next rank (depending on how well you did, that would take more or fewer years), you got it. So if you were an assistant professor, and you got 3 points on this year's evaluation, you could do the math and figure out how many years it would take at that level to get the associate rank.

The system wasn't flawless, of course, and Home Office couldn't stop tinkering with it, but I liked the idea of picking up a set number of points each year. (The biggest single flaw was that the bar-raising was rapid, thoughtless, and done without reference to the realities of the job. But that strikes me as a separate issue from the structure of the process, which I thought made sense.) If you had a hot streak, promotions came faster; if you taught and went home, they came slower, but they weren't surprises. People could decide whether it was worth their time to go the extra mile – some did, some didn't. (Although ranks didn't bring tenure, they did bring pay bumps.) And the self-starters didn't give it much thought, knowing that the points would accumulate over time anyway.

Part of what I liked about the system was that hitting the top rank didn't take the sting out of the system, since a given year's point total also determined that year's raise. So even full professors got rewarded for good years, and slapped on the wrist for indifferent ones. The differences weren't huge – I recall the usual gap running from 3.4% on the low end to 4% on the high end – but they made a psychological difference.

In a tenured and unionized system, raises are across-the-board, and a full professor has nothing left to shoot for, other than her own intrinsic motivators. The best ones keep chugging anyhow, but some don't, and the college doesn't (can't) make much effort to notice the difference. If we default to an automatic seniority-driven system, then we've lost the motivation the minute they first get tenure. Not everybody is a self-starter – some level of extrinsic motivation, even if minor, can serve to send messages about what the college values. Abdicating that opportunity – especially when few other opportunities exist – strikes me as a fundamental failure.

Folks at teaching-oriented places: have you seen a fair and reasonable way to do faculty promotions?

I'm at a teaching-oriented place, and while there are glitches in the system with tenure/promotion from time to time (and in certain departments more than others) I think the key is transparency in the process. As much as it's a pain in the butt to have to do my tenure notebook each and every year until I get tenure, I get evaluated as I will be evaluated when I go up for tenure - all the way up through the chain of command - each year. There are no surprises. And the university-wide criteria - what "counts" toward tenure - are explicitly spelled out, so there are no surprises about what is required or about what works to demonstrate competency in different areas.

(By the way, it's ridiculous to me that any faculty member would look at the way a senior colleague was evaluated and expect to be evaluated similarly in this job market and with the way that higher ed has gone in the past 20 years. Do they really believe that's an argument that works? Anywhere?)
Here at Proprietary Art School (which is a teaching-oriented place with little pretense of being a research or scholarship mill) the management recently introduced a ranking system (assistant professor, associate professor, full professor). The purpose of the ranking system was sort of vague, since management stated up front that these ranks would have no effect on salaries or perks, and that they were strictly for show. For example, a faculty member who was awarded a rank of full professor could put that on his/her card and could call themselves as such, but beyond that there didn't seem to be much of a point to the whole process.

Faculty members (both full and part-time) were invited to apply for a rank, but the process was entirely voluntary and you didn't have to apply for a rank if you didn't want to. The published criteria for a given rank were rather strict--if you wanted to be a full professor you practically had to be a god, someone who was not only a super teacher with a whole fistful of awards but also someone who was active and widely recognized in your scholarly field.

Some of the more cynical faculty members thought that this was a conspiracy on the part of management to introduce some sort of system for handling layoffs and downsizing, should that ever be necessary. However, since everyone here is on contract, all you have to do to cut staff is not to renew their contracts.

Very few people actually applied for a rank, and those who did ended up with a rank considerably lower than what they desired. The chance of a part-timer getting anything beyond assistant professor or instructor is probably very small.

I think the rank idea is a great one. At my CC we get tenure after three years. So many turn into teach and go home mode after that.. or the variation, only do it for extra-cash...
The "teach and go home" example is perfect for those of us who believe the idea of tenure is antiquated at best. Colleges and universities are being forced into a profit formula industry by Spellings, whcih means we must be more flexible and responsive to the markets....for better or worse.
Here at Middle State University we have a system that seems to make sense. The expectations about P&T are not "bright line," but they are clear enough that those of us on the tenure-track know what we have to do. Raises work like the system you describe--a common base raise, plus a "merit raise" based on productivity (in all three areas), as measured on a transparent scale. The merit raises aren't huge, but they are an incentive.

BTW, I suspect the teach 'n go phenomenon is naturally shrinking as the older generations pass on. It's hard to imagine anyone surviving the socialization and selection process of grad school and the job market (in my field, at least) without that nagging inner voice keeping their nose to the grindstone.
Since the pay raises that go along with promotions in academic rank are so small, why bother with all the blurry bureaucracy they involve?

--Union guy
I think it's interesting that we all often assume that performance evaluations have to stop once one becomes a full professor. At the institution where I used to teach (a 4 year mid-tier state university trying to become a research institution - aren't they all?), faculty were eligible to submit their materials every 6-7 years after they had achieved the rank of full professor. They were judged on the same criteria as when they put forth their materials to get tenure or to move up to full. At stake was a bump to base salary. While the system wasn't perfect, it was fairly effective in keeping most people productive. I see no reason why that can't work elsewhere. At least that's what I'm trying to convince my new institution.

Now of course, this was at a place where these decisions were generally taken seriously by all around. How do you do that? I'm not sure, but as others have mentioned, tenure criteria were pretty clear there. Come to think of it - tenure critera are pretty clear here too and people take it seriously here as well.
Dean Dad wrote: "In a tenured and unionized system, raises are across-the-board, and a full professor has nothing left to shoot for, other than her own intrinsic motivators. The best ones keep chugging anyhow, but some don't, and the college doesn't (can't) make much effort to notice the difference."

There's a BIG difference between "doesn't" and "can't." At my CA cc, where I've been the union grievance chair for years, I've never seen--not once--administrators try to change the behavior of bad teachers who have tenure. There's plenty that administrators--and peers--CAN do: a "Needs Improvement" evaluation, for example, means that you don't get a yearly bump on the salary schedule, but folks choose not to do anything. It's too much work, or they don't want to deal with a grievance, or whatever.

The claim that tenure or a ranking system gives full professors some kind of automatic, iron-clad immunity from discipline, up to and including termination, is valid only if administrators are reluctant to get their hands dirty or their hair mussed. It IS possible to get rid of bad teachers (out here in CA, anyway). Of course it requires some time and lots of documentation--as it should--but it is certainly possible.

As grievance chair, my job is to make sure that teachers' due process rights are observed, but if someone with tenure is abusive, racist, sexist, habitually late, or just flat-out incompetent, due process isn't going to save his/her job.
Our CC has a "rank" system that was initiated by the faculty. (There is shared governance for you!) Assoc is defined by P&T (after 3 years), and Full is defined by time in harness, and maybe some other detail that all competent faculty would meet.

The main reason for rank was to clarify the standing of faculty writing letters for students. Before that, a 1 semester adjunct and a 20 year veteran were both "instructor" to the outside world.

Slackers are not supposed to be ignored. Pay raises are contingent on doing things specified in our (non-union) agreements, much as the last Anonymous argues can be done. I don't know if there are any cases where that has kicked in, but it is there if the Dean thinks it is needed.
Here at Proprietary Art School we don't have a tenure system at all, and the ranking system that was recently introduced here has nothing to do with tenure. I actually asked one of our senior faculty members if the introduction of ranking meant that management was thinking about trying a tenure system here. He said absolutely no. In fact, if you even mention the word tenure to an administrator, you will get a hostile reaction, almost as if you had said a dirty word.

The ranking system was supposedly introduced at my school at the request of the faculty, perhaps to make it easier to handle things like letters of recommendation written on behalf of students to other schools, assuming of course that a recommendation from a full professor will somehow carry more weight than one from a mere assistant professor.

The ranking system has created quite a bit of friction among faculty members. Some people who didn't get ranked highly resent those who did. It seems that the administration has succeeded at getting just about everybody ticked off, which is quite an accomplishment.

Dean Dad writes :that also sets a sort of expectation among the next crop of candidates, who react to rejection by pointing incredulously to some of their 'senior' colleagues.

The obvious rejoinder would be to agree with them that some of their senior colleagues did not deserve promotion, and add that they don't deserve it either.
At my cc, rank is based on longevity and we don't have tenure. Although we do have a ranking system, we refer to all faculty as "professor." So, although I have only recently become a full professor, I have always been referred to as "Professor Howard." Given that cc's still have the stigma of being 13th grade in the eyes of some, I think that refering to all teaching faculty as "professor" helps reinforce that we are a college.
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