Friday, December 09, 2005

Choosing Not to Look

At my previous employer (a for-profit college), the single aspect of the job I hated the most was on Tuesdays, when a report would show up on my desk (and the other managers’) showing the top 25 class sections that semester for student attrition. I was supposed to ‘ask’ the instructors of those sections in my departments to ‘shed light’ on the high drop rates, and to keep notes about which instructors showed up on the list most frequently. Persistently high drop rates were cause for termination, and both adjunct and full-time faculty were terminated when they couldn’t bring the rates down.

I hated that. I hated it because as a professor, I saw firsthand how much student attrition has nothing to do with the quality of teaching. (Most of it had to do with transportation, work/family hours, money, family crises, or substance abuse.) As the institution started to struggle financially, the squeeze on instructors tightened. Some, I’m told, consciously lowered their grading standards to keep themselves off the list.

(I also hated it as a social scientist. The list would show up every week, with little change from week to week. So the same section would top the list several weeks in a row, creating a perception of ongoing crisis among my colleagues. For all intents and purposes, it created a feedback loop. I tried in vain to explain to my colleagues the concept of horses having left the barn, but they just didn’t get it. Finally, I told my boss I didn’t want to see the report anymore until the last week of the semester. He agreed, more out of courtesy than understanding.)

When I fled to public higher ed, part of the appeal was the established culture of respecting instructors as instructors. I don’t get a weekly (or even a yearly) list here. I don’t know who has high drop/fail rates and who doesn’t. Tenured faculty only have to do student evaluations once every five years, unless they’re up for promotion. Students complain much less here, since their expectations haven’t been inflated by an admissions/sales force working on commission. When they do complain, it isn’t a given that they’re right.

As a faculty brat myself, and a former professor at some fairly rough-and-ready places, the idea that I could manage without having to browbeat or micromanage faculty was incredibly appealing. While I do get frustrated here sometimes, I don’t have a weekly hit-the-roof moment like I did there. I could actually treat faculty the way I liked to be treated, and not be accused of failing to do my job.

In traditional higher ed, there’s a general culture of ‘choosing not to look.’ In most cases, it’s either harmless or beneficial. I like that professors here can dress pretty much as they see fit, as long as they don’t get charged with indecent exposure. (At the for-profit, ties were mandatory for male professors. Women got away with turtlenecks.) Here they can (and sometimes do) look kinda funny. They can dress funny, indulge odd enthusiasms, screw up paperwork, and exhibit a general indifference to most of the niceties of organizational behavior, and get away with it. It’s part of the appeal of the job.

But there’s a catch. All that discretion, all that freedom, is premised on a foundation of professional responsibility. A professor who blithely or egregiously ignores that professional responsibility is much harder to call on the carpet here. At the for-profit, which didn’t have a tenure system, a professor who, say, read his negative performance review aloud to his class during class time could be unceremoniously shown the door. (I’m not making that up.) Here, not. There, a professor who made a habit of simply not showing up could be told never to bother showing up again. (Again, I’m not making that up.) Here, only with outsize difficulty.

Tenure was intended to protect the freedom to do one’s job. It was not intended to protect freedom from one’s job.

In theory, it’s easy to describe extreme cases and then just start the process churning. The problem is that the culture of choosing not to look makes it uniquely difficult to get the kind of information you’d need to make an adverse employment action hold up in court. Do we make a practice of monitoring the start and end times of every class? Of course not. Do we have faculty punch in and out? Of course not. So how do we know that one absentee is actually unique?

Very frustrating.

Choosing not to look only works when both sides act in good faith. When one side doesn’t, choosing not to look makes correcting a problem nearly impossible.

My plea to faculty? Please, please, please, act in good faith. I don’t want to have to start micromanaging again. Let me choose not to look.