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.