Tomorrow's Academic Careers
The posting below looks at some of the challenges of writing faculty performance reviews. It is by Stephen Aldersley* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter, 2018, Vol. 28, No. 3. Copyright © 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066} email@example.com
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Tomorrow’s Academic Careers
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Episodes in the Life of a Chair: Performance Ratings
Like most department chairs, it didn't take you long to learn that writing performance ratings is not the most pleasant aspect of the job. A big part of the difficulty, it seems to you, lies in the fact that the people you now have to evaluate were previously your
colleagues, and although back in your pre‐chair days you held opinions about them and their work, some of which were not so positive, you didn't have to write these down and hand them to them. Now, not only do you have to do exactly that, but also you do so in the knowledge that what you say could very well influence their careers in significant ways—for example, their chances of being awarded tenure or promotion. It's understandable that, like you, most of your fellow chairs do not look forward to having to do them. You've heard stories that some of your fellow chairs even manage to avoid the task altogether, but that's not your way, and so when appraisal‐writing time comes along, you grit your teeth and take up your pen.
Over the course of your tenure as chair, you've learned a couple of things that help. Keeping notes during the year, for example, is a good idea, and remembering what you did with them is just as important. You've also learned that all appraisals are not equal; those for more recent arrivals in the department, especially those on the tenure track, being the most important, while arguably not so much weight attaches to what you say about the full professor who is supposedly nearing retirement. But the most important thing you've learned is that you need to take each appraisal seriously. You are, after all, writing about professional men and women, some of whom may have far more experience than you and most of whom do not lack for confidence that they know what they are doing and are quite sure that they are very good at it. Formally evaluating them is not something that can be taken lightly. Your words must be chosen carefully because you can be fairly confident they are going to be read carefully—and, one way or another, at some level, they are going to matter.
Based on these thoughts, the product now of several iterations of the cycle, you approach the task with the general goal of making your comments, in every case, as meaningful, honest, and constructive as you can. This is the spirit in which you had approached the task this year.
Because faculty performance evaluations and the ratings that accompany them are a not infrequent source of discontent at your university and occasionally give rise to grievances or threats of grievances, the human resources department is constantly working to rationalize the appraisal policy, presumably in the hope that if the process is clearly defined and carried out fairly and with due care and attention, personnel problems will be reduced. The three bedrock elements of the policy are that (1) everyone should receive an annual performance evaluation; (2) based on this evaluation, everyone will receive a numerical rating; and (3) annual merit increments should reflect this rating. Of the five possible ratings, 5 is defined as “outstanding,” 4 as “exceeds expectations,” 3 as “meets expectations,” 2 as “does not meet expectations,” and 1 as “unsatisfactory.” (As an example of the aforementioned tweaking, a 3 used to be called “satisfactory,” but it was concluded that no one wanted to be “just” satisfactory.)
Not long ago, a new HR director had been hired, and taking advantage of the ability of modern technology to collect and organize system‐wide data that her predecessors could only dream about, she had discovered that for as far back as could be ascertained, the great majority of faculty had been receiving either a 5 (slightly more common) or a 4, with perhaps 15 percent of faculty receiving a 3 and almost no one receiving either a 2 or a 1. Not exactly a normal distribution—and not exactly a surprise to most everyone on campus. Armed with this information, the director had spoken with the provost who had agreed to encourage the deans and department chairs to review their past practices around performance evaluations with a view to achieving a broader university‐wide spread.
Changes from the top were not the only different factor impinging on your appraisal‐writing this year. At the beginning of the year, your department, previously ten faculty strong, suddenly doubled in size due to the college's decision to merge some departments. As a result, the year has already been somewhat challenging. The disciplinary background of the newcomers is a reasonably good fit with that of your original faculty, but there has been a lot for everyone to get used to, and it would be more than a stretch to say that the two groups have immediately gelled. It hasn't helped that the merger was a top‐down affair, and it is probably true to say that neither group had welcomed it. It also hasn't helped that each group includes senior faculty whose many years' experience in the college have accustomed them to doing things in a certain way. Nonetheless, it's been your responsibility to make it work, and you feel reasonably confident that things are beginning to move in the right direction.
In past years, you were not one of the chairs who the new HR director presumably had in mind when she campaigned for a less generous distribution of “outstanding” ratings. In fact, you had almost never given more than two of them in any one appraisal period and those even more rarely to the same faculty two years running. When questioned, you would explain that you defined outstanding as “exceptional”—in other words, a level of performance not easily repeated, even by the most accomplished faculty, year in, year out. Because at the same time you had rarely given 1s or 2s, the great majority of your faculty were used to receiving either 4s or, usually slightly fewer, 3s.
Having seen no reason to do otherwise, this year you followed the same practice. As usual, you had asked faculty to provide self‐appraisals in which they typically describe their major accomplishments, supplemented in many cases by a more or less detailed analysis of how their year has gone. As usual, you had read these self‐appraisals carefully before drafting your comments. In each case, you had laid these aside for a day or two, made a few changes upon rethinking here and there, and then visited each faculty member's office to deliver the finished document, inviting them to see you should they have any response.
Not much time had elapsed before you received a visit from one of your new faculty. A full professor, he had a reputation for being a good teacher, got high student evaluations, had given one presentation at a professional conference during the year, and had reported that he had written a paper that was nearly ready for a journal submission.
Acknowledging that he had had a “good year” in your appraisal, you had awarded him a 4. He had come to tell you that this was not acceptable. After you explained your reasoning, he said, “I have been here for close to thirty years, and I have never received anything less than a five. Furthermore, if you are unwilling to change your rating, I am going to the dean.” After you thanked him for coming to see you, you restated your position and told him you were not willing to alter the rating.
The next day, you had received a message from the dean's office, requesting that you make an appointment. When you arrived at the meeting, you were not surprised to hear what it was about. The dean listened sympathetically to your explanation for your decision. He then turned to you and said, “You have a new department configuration, and there are many fights to fight. Is this one really worth fighting?” The implication was clear enough: he thought you should back down. To say you didn't want to would be an understatement. You didn't interpret what he had said as a directive, but it was very strong advice. You thanked him, said you would think about it, and went back to your office. To change the rating was going to stick in your craw, no doubt about it. But, you told yourself, this was not the time to let emotion interfere with reason; rather, it was a time to focus on costs and benefits. No doubt the dean had been right to pose the issue the way he had. Sticking to your guns, although it might give momentary satisfaction, had a raft of potential long‐term consequences that you could be living with long after that satisfaction was a distant memory. And what was to be gained by refusing to back down? Ultimately, you decided, not much. After all, you had made your point. Changing the rating did not mean you had accepted the professor's argument.
The following day, after alerting the dean, you asked the professor to see you. You began by repeating your general approach to assigning performance ratings and the rationale behind it, and then went on to say that, in consideration of the fact that this was the first time you were writing his evaluation, you had decided to change the 4 to a 5. You followed this up by saying that you thought it would be helpful if you could meet again soon with the goal of reaching agreement on expectations for the coming year. And that was that. It took not much more than five minutes, but it was, you felt, one of the more difficult five‐minute spans that you had so far experienced—and part of the difficulty was that you weren't at all sure what you might have done differently from the start.
To think about:
Before you assumed the chair's role, how much attention did you pay to your annual review?
The HR department at most institutions requires that the chair write formal performance reviews. Aside from satisfying that requirement, what are you looking to do in writing such reviews?
If you could, how would you improve the performance review process at your institution?
What would you have done at different points in the case discussed in this article? Why?
*About the Author
Stephen Aldersley is professor in the Department of Liberal Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology. Email firstname.lastname@example.org