Laying the Groundwork for Effective Faculty Evaluation

illustration of a news article

Recent incidents in the news — at DePaul University and elsewhere — highlight the importance of building an effective faculty evaluation and tenure review process. While some problems are specific to faculty evaluation systems at particular institutions, most often the underlying issue is a lack of clarity on the criteria by which faculty are to be evaluated.

Avoiding “Connoisseurship”

Raoul Arreola, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and author of Developing a Comprehensive Faculty Evaluation System, and Mike Theall, associate professor at Youngstown State University, offer some advice for academic leaders who want to ensure effective faculty evaluation:

  • Set clear criteria for evaluating faculty performance
  • Define what’s needed to meet each of the criteria
  • Ensure the criteria and performance expectations are communicated clearly to the faculty

In the absence of clear qualifications and standards, faculty evaluation may operate according to what could be called a “connoisseurship model,” in which review depends on the taste and values of the individual committee members. It’s critical to define what type of faculty work is most important to the institution.

Define Evaluation Criteria As Specifically As Possible

Arreola points to “service” as an example of an area of required performance that often causes confusion. “Letting faculty know that they will be evaluated on service does not give them specific parameters for performance,” he remarks. The faculty evaluation handbook needs to clarify:

  • How much impact performance in each area will have (for example, does service count for a specific percentage?)
  • What types of work meet the criteria (e.g., service to the institution, service to the profession, service to the community)

But even this may not be enough, if each category of work required is left vague. For instance, what exactly constitutes service to the community? One institution (perhaps a small, faith-based private college) may value social service and may wish to reward faculty who devote time on the weekend to feeding the homeless. Another institution may value activities more focused on the profession, and may be more likely to reward, for example, math faculty who work with the local Boy Scouts to tutor children in mathematics.

“If you leave the variables vague, then faculty evaluation becomes a matter of each person bringing their own values to the decision making process. This is a prescription for unreliability in the process.”
Raoul Arreola, University of Tennessee Health Science Center

Mike Theall adds that besides setting specific criteria, it is also critical to work to get underlying values articulated and examined. He offers an example in which a member of a teacher awards committee suggested eliminating one candidate at the start; when asked why, the committee member responded, “He can’t be a good teacher; his grades are too high.” When committee members cling to unsubstantiated assumptions, Theall warns, these unspoken, unofficial criteria can bias the entire process.

“Engage in ongoing, open dialogue and discussion about the value systems that lie behind both the stated criteria and the assumptions that surface during review.”
Mike Theall, Youngstown State University

Make Sure Your Faculty Know the Criteria

Underlying many of the issues that come up during faculty evaluation are situations in which it was never made clear to the faculty what those doing the evaluation value.

Arreola cites the example of a junior professor who asked for tenure and was told by his chair, “You’re not quite ready yet.”

“In what way?” the professor asked.

“Well, you need more experience.”

“Look, how many publications do I need?”

After a pause, the chair replied, “Seven.”

In this example, the professor discerned that the chair valued publications highly, and that a specific number of publications was the unspoken, priority criteria for faculty evaluation. “The point,” Arreola notes, “is that finally, the activity or performance or specific deliverables required were specified. This gave the professor the opportunity to make an informed choice on where to prioritize his efforts.”

It is critical to communicate to faculty what is of importance to the institution. If this is already defined with specificity in the faculty evaluation handbook, that is ideal. If it hasn’t been defined, then the dean and the department chairs need to communicate what their values are and what they think is important. In the absence of that guidance, faculty will prioritize efforts they think are important.

“The only thing you lose by being very specific and very clear is the power to be capricious. What you gain is incredible — you enable the faculty to focus on the mission of the institution and to make informed choices to do the best they can to work toward that mission.”
Raoul Arreola, University of Tennessee Health Science Center