Evaluating Professionals in Academe

We need to find better ways to evaluate faculty members in professional disciplines for tenure and promotion -- a sort of "professional analytics," Michael Bugeja argues.

December 11, 2015

Professionals from industry often seem out of place in higher education, especially in tenure-eligible positions at research-intensive institutions. And yet their expertise is increasingly in demand as universities focus on skills needed for job placement to offset the cost of degrees in fields such as advertising, agriculture, business, criminal justice, design, engineering, journalism, marketing, nursing, public relations, social work, technology and veterinary medicine, to name a few.

Those fields typically have the same research and grant expectations as traditional academic disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences. However, professionals in academe also must serve the industry and master the latest skill sets to properly advise and instruct students.

Recently the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication assembled a panel to discuss how to evaluate professionals for promotion and tenure. The catalyst was increasing use of big data to evaluate performance and productivity of units and individual professors. Algorithms as found in Academic Analytics, for example, which focus on “primary areas of scholarly research accomplishment,” do not tabulate works associated with professional practice in my discipline, including:

  • Newspaper, magazine and online publication.
  • Photography, video and multimedia.
  • Website, social media and app development.
  • Creative shows, performances and juried exhibitions.
  • Trade books, ebooks and textbooks.
  • White papers, PR and advertising campaigns.

Other professionals in colleges of agriculture, business, engineering, health, social sciences and veterinary medicine require diverse skill sets, create other products and deliver different services. But all these fields have in common the issue of what is valued vs. what is counted in annual reviews and P&T decisions, particularly when those decisions are informed by big data.

The database of Academic Analytics includes information on 270,000 faculty members. The service ranks graduate programs, departments and professors by publication and citations in rigorously peer-reviewed scholarly journals, funded research and prestigious awards. The database is programmed to guide university leaders “in understanding strengths and weaknesses, establishing standards, allocating resources, and monitoring performance.”

In journalism and mass communication, the database does not track foundation funding from such sources as Knight, Scripps and McCormick -- prestigious entities in my profession -- nor did it include any AEJMC awards until its sister organization, the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, advocated successfully for their inclusion. In an age where cross-disciplinary collaboration is encouraged, the database often prioritizes single-author works, perhaps missing double-bylined and/or -edited works and anthologies.

Unless deans, provosts and presidents are adequately informed about omissions, reliance solely on big data can result in lower allocations for professional programs in productivity-based budget models. That can undermine professional schools’ industry obligations and eventually result in additional research appointments for P&T reasons. Then the dominoes begin to fall as more adjuncts are hired out of industry at lower pay and higher workloads, derailing professionals from the tenure track.

Because continuing professors rather than adjuncts control the curricula, courses may not be sufficiently updated, affecting placement and enrollment. At its worst, climate issues may arise between researchers and professionals. (Both are needed for program excellence and balance.)

Part of the problem in evaluating professionals concerns universally acknowledged standards in traditional scholarship that are absent in professional practice. For instance, a flagship journal in any discipline is known by its peer-review rigor and acceptance rates. Citation indexes also add to the prestige of these journals and are used to measure impact of individual professors. Awards, grants and academy affiliations are selected and defined in part by membership in the Association of American Universities, a nonprofit organization of 62 leading public and private research universities in the United States and Canada.

Professional work is known by other standards, including:

  • Impact of products or services on society.
  • External presentations on innovation and methods.
  • Citations in trade, broadcast and online posts.
  • Grants, projects and consultations by and for corporate entities.

What is needed at present does not exist: Professional Analytics. As such, chairs and deans of professional departments and schools need to work closely with provosts, presidents and faculty senates to define the scholarship of practice.

At Iowa State University, the scholarship of practice is defined in the Faculty Handbook:

“Faculty members may engage in extension/professional practice activities by utilizing their professional expertise to disseminate information outside of the traditional classroom to help improve the knowledge and skills of their clientele (i.e., the publics they serve) or the environment in which they live and work. This work should be related to the faculty member's position responsibilities.”

The handbook also lists examples of activities that fall within “practice,” including organizing and leading workshops or training sessions, participating in clinical and diagnostic practice, engaging in technology transfer, serving on agencies or boards because of individual expertise, and leadership in professional societies or organizations.

The scholarship of practice at ISU balances use of Academic Analytics.

There are remedies for institutions that lack such guidelines. First is defining what, exactly, constitutes a professional or creative work. At Iowa State University, this is defined succinctly: a product is (a) created, (b) reviewed externally, (c) disseminated to audience. Second, a position responsibility statement should outline what, precisely, will count and qualify for professional advancement in tenure-track positions. When hiring professionals, administrators should include the PRS in the letter of offer along with clear expectations of what productivity will be expected not only in the mandatory P&T year but also in the midterm review during which contracts can be terminated for lack of performance.

All these requirements, of course, should be vetted by central administration and faculty senates. Chairs and professors of professional units should work through shared governance and make a case for the significance of their contributions to practice, industry and society. All professional departments in research-intensive institutions also should seek accreditation, which bestows national status and adds to the credibility of the discipline internally and externally. In fact, the accreditation process in itself is ideal to establish new institutional guidelines for professional units at public and private institutions.

The groundwork also can be laid within professional departments. For instance, an annual review form can be created that takes into account the circulation of a trade publication along with acceptance rates of any freelance assignments. For juried shows and exhibitions, acceptance rates and even attendance can document impact. Broadcast and online appearances should be counted along with media citations as expert source or witness. Social media can help gauge impact, too, via website visits, comments and tweets. Also important are invited presentations, proceedings, book reviews, digital applications, trademarks, patents and corporate action taken based on white papers, campaigns or consultations with corporate entities.

Departmental and faculty leadership also can set new standards for professionals. Chairs can hold retreats on the topic; faculties can revise governance documents, especially P&T sections. Criteria can be established so that appropriate external reviewers evaluate midterm and mandatory P&T dossiers. Chairs and deans also can tout professional contributions as avidly as scholarly ones in alumni newsletters, email blasts and press releases.

In the end, there should be no second-class citizens in any academic unit. Rigor should be the same for professionals in annual reviews and P&T decisions. Just as in research, the scholarship of practice should be focused on a specialized area of interest, expertise or social contribution establishing national reputation therein and documenting upward trajectory over time.


Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, also chairs the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.


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