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?