Toward Objectivity in Faculty Evaluation

By Elmore, H. W. | Academe, May/June 2008 | Go to article overview

Toward Objectivity in Faculty Evaluation

Elmore, H. W., Academe

Here's a proposal for a new comprehensive system to evaluate faculty performance.

The productivity of faculty members often figures prominently in annual evaluations, post-tenure reviews, and decisions about tenure, promotion, merit pay, release time, awards, and other kinds of recognition. Yet the procedures and instruments that institutions use to assess productivity and merit vary, leaving little that unifies the evaluation and rewards system in U.S. higher education. To date, no movement has emerged to standardize the process and maximize objectivity while linking productivity in an empirical fashion to rewards.

Disputes and allegations of administrative bias and abuse of the faculty evaluation process often result in dissatisfaction among faculty, low morale, grievances, and litigation. Simplifying the evaluation process and making it more objective would obviously be worthwhile. But changing policies and practices that have evolved over many years on college and university campuses will require effort.

Evaluation Systems Now in Use

On any single campus, the faculty evaluation process may include one or more components with instruments developed to measure specific areas of productivity. For example, professors must compile substantial documentation for promotion and tenure even though the same information is included in annual reports. Similarly, teaching, research, and service awards require applications of various levels of complexity, letters of recommendation, and selection committees. And department chairs often confer reassigned time, especially at undergraduate institutions where teaching loads are heavy, to allow selected faculty to devote more time to research. Many colleges and universities also use merit pay as a financial incentive for exemplary faculty. Thus faculty may be evaluated repeatedly on the same performance standards using multiple instruments to determine rewards that are related but not linked, resulting in redundant effort and inefficient use of time.

Because humans are social animals who form alliances, make friendships, and develop biases, the evaluation process is often subjective and may be affected by extrinsic factors. Indeed, there are many junctures in the steps leading to recognition or reward where individual administrative perception and bias can affect an evaluation. The subjectivity of established evaluation practices may lead some faculty members to conclude that their evaluators are unfair and the process is flawed. If many faculty members feel this way, discontent, erosion of morale, and a decline in the quality of the work environment will result.

Moreover, it is ironic that systems designed to measure productivity can become so complex that they unintentionally lead to a decrease in performance. Writing evaluation reports is labor intensive and consumes large blocks of time among professors under evaluation, faculty committees, department chairs, and deans. Developing a sleek, simple, and objective evaluation system would thus increase productivity and greatly enhance faculty morale by minimizing the possibility of unfairness.

Defining Merit

A major problem in discussing comprehensive faculty evaluation is how to define merit. Although opinions vary, viewpoints tend to sort into two major categories. One school of thought measures merit qualitatively. Under this system, the quantity of work performed is not as important as its quality. Only the most outstanding work-for example, performance in highly respectable areas of academic endeavor, publications in prestigious journals, or books that receive critical acclaim-is regarded as meritorious. Routine tasks such as advising, assessment, outreach, recruitment, and service are seen as "normal duties" regardless of the amount of time devoted to them, diminishing their value as worthwhile efforts.

The second school of thought stresses quantity and relies on performance benchmarks, with accomplishments above a baseline representing increasing levels of merit. …

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