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I remember the first time I encountered the term “deadwood” in an academic context. I was a new Ph.D. student at a Research-1 university, and a faculty member was complaining about what he called the department’s deadwood: the faculty who no longer produced high levels of research. I didn’t think much about it in the moment and filed away the idea that I never wanted to be referred to that way myself.

Yet in the days following, I started noticing that the people characterized as deadwood were actually those who did most of the undergraduate and master’s student advising. Such supposedly nonproductive researchers were at every recruitment function, and one even coordinated a large freshman general education course with multiple instructors and teaching assistants. I also noticed that although many faculty members showed blatant disrespect to those people, thus empowering doctoral students to dismiss them, they were often the ones whom graduate students turned to for support and guidance—and who could see the pettiness, infighting and posturing for what it was.

More than 25 years later, the pejorative terminology of “deadwood” is still common in academe. Typically, it is applied to the same type of people as it was when I first heard it. However, it can also denote those who have all but checked out of their careers and do minimal teaching, low levels of service and no research.

The former usage is problematic because it emphasizes only individual research productivity, ignoring the crucial contributions certain faculty make that allow their colleagues to be more productive. The latter application is problematic because it impacts resources like faculty funding, teaching allocations and service distributions. The nonproductive faculty in those cases can impede junior faculty promotions by abandoning their own service, block curricular innovations and stifle student engagement.

Thus, not all “deadwood” is equal, and we need to rethink the term and its implications. As a director at my institution, as well as a communication scholar, I started to wonder:

  • Is deadwood a bad thing if the person is doing the service that enables others to focus on their research?
  • Would the scholars who easily toss around the term solely related to research productivity be willing to share the service burdens they so willingly leave to the deadwood?
  • If someone is not contributing to the service and research missions of their institutions and is only doing minimal teaching, whose responsibility is that? Do administrators share in it?

As I pondered those questions, I learned that the origin of the term “deadwood” does was not in reference to something pathetic and useless. In contrast, in a forest, deadwood is essential: it feeds the ecosystem, enables regeneration, supports new growth, provides shelter for wildlife and protects it from climate change. In healthy forests, deadwood is essential.

If we take seriously that metaphor, then, deadwood can be vital to a university’s ecological system. The faculty members that appear to be at the end of their usefulness may, in fact, be part of the life cycle necessary for the next generation to survive and thrive. Instead of seeing them as deadwood, those who are properly feeding and supporting their units should be seen more as nurse logs: trees that have fallen but continue to feed and nurture the life around them. And we should respect and celebrate those who help teach additional classes or bear the brunt of service to protect and nurture others.

But what about senior faculty who do not contribute to research, teaching or service—those who have used the same class materials for much of their career, have not kept up with disciplinary advances and refuse service assignments? They are the kind of faculty who need pruning. By clearing the deadwood, we can help the remaining branches thrive by allowing in the light and fresh ideas.

That does not mean pushing for the retirement of those individuals. It means being good stewards of our resources and encouraging the deadwood to foster new growth. We must recognize that a faculty member’s disinclination to contribute is not always just an individual problem; it is also a leadership problem. We have a responsibility to ensure that such faculty members are integrated back into the university ecosystem. Better yet, we should intervene before they withdraw.

A Portfolio Approach

Here are a few strategies that might help us all think about how to approach career cycle changes.

First, we speak a great deal about mentoring for junior faculty, but once a faculty member is tenured and certainly at full rank, we often forget about the importance of mentorship. Mentors can help midcareer and senior faculty explore career paths within the academy, new lines of research and innovations in pedagogy. They can also help associate faculty members who get overburdened with service learn to set boundaries so their long-term scholarly productivity is not derailed. That can help them avoid the burnout, alienation and the deadwood designation often tied to stalls in research productivity.

Second, we can also create a culture that values a portfolio approach to faculty productivity. Not everyone needs to excel at all aspects of their roles at every point in their careers. We need to shape the language around us by valuing the service and teaching responsibilities more openly. Although we are quick to laud professors for landing grants and publishing their work, how often do we say the following: “Thank you to Dr. Smith for their outstanding contributions to service by attending the orientation and graduation sessions this year. Without their willingness to support our students, others would be unable to focus on research. These contributions are invaluable and support all of us”? When we applaud publications and grants, we should also celebrate committee and event service.

Third, given the above, we need to foster a culture that not only empowers faculty to do their best work, but also extinguishes any negative talk about others. In recent research on bullying in academics, my colleagues and I found that supportive leaders who have a clear vision for the department and demonstrate their concern for all members can reduce bullying in their departments. Although name-calling and using ageist epithets such as “deadwood” does not alone rise to the level of bullying, it is destructive workplace behavior. When leaders hear that chatter, they should remind colleagues that labeling is divisive and damaging, while taking note of the conditions that are leading to the complaints.

Toward Equity in Engagement

As leaders, we should also always remember that if we have faculty who are not contributing, their failings are not simply their own. We are the ones allowing them to do a lesser share of the work. We have the ability and responsibility to address that behavior.

Yes, oftentimes chairs and other senior administrators feel powerless or do not want to upset faculty who appear intimidating, even if they threaten to make our culture toxic. But we cannot actually be supportive and positive leaders if we allow inactive faculty to burden others. We must find ways to engage largely absent faculty. In the best case, we can play to their strengths, brainstorm with them about their contributions, and find roles in which they excel. We may discover they are disconnected through circumstance, not design.

Unfortunately, however, a few faculty members may invest minimal efforts in their final career years because they believe they have paid their proverbial dues and have earned the right to coast. They may be angry and resentful when you attempt to engage them and simply refuse to collaborate or do the service assigned them, despite your best-faith efforts. In those cases, it is your duty as an administrator to take the following actions.

  • Document your attempts to involve them.
  • Get the advice and support of your dean of faculty, dean or provost.
  • Examine any collective bargaining agreements to ensure you are following those agreements.
  • Develop a performance improvement plan, including clear expectations, such as a higher teaching load or meaningful service.
  • Then, following the policies of your institution, schedule a disciplinary meeting and clearly outline the expectations.
  • Follow through with your plan and enforce the resolution.

It is our responsibility to lead our entire unit and create an equitable balance for all. In fact, working toward equity in role engagement may be one of the most important parts of the job. If the faculty member gets aggressive or threatening or seeks to retaliate, do not take it lightly. Document and report it immediately. The hard truth is that bullies are rewarded when they get their way. If they push back hard, it is likely because it has worked for them in the past and they have gotten their desired response. We need to call such behavior out to break the dysfunctional cycle.

Over the last few generations, we have come to accept that deadwood is part of academic life. And the notion that faculty members who get tenure stop engaging in meaningful ways is often a view that the general public holds. Our own lack of internal leadership is one of the factors that has led to required posttenure review at many institutions. We need to take control of the issues and shift that perspective.

We can have a balanced ecosystem approach in which each faculty member specializes in some duties more than others. Late-career faculty members can take on different roles and contribute to more flourishing academic “forest.” That recognizes the true cycle of faculty life and makes room for those that have other responsibilities that may limit their research productivity or who are burned out in one area. In an ideal world, we would focus on teaching, research and service, but excellence in all three at all times is usually not realistic.

And when we as campus leaders see genuine cases of nonproductivity, we need to intervene, no matter how difficult it may be. Such behaviors are unacceptable. We need to help nurture symbiotic and supportive relationships among our colleagues. And to do so, we can start by pruning the term “deadwood” from our vocabulary.

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