A Rare Performance Review Do-Over

April 14, 2008

Middlebury College's faculty committee that makes recommendations about colleagues' pre-tenure reappointments recently took the rare step of reversing itself. The case not only put the institution's review system under the microscope, but it also highlights the tricky issue of assessing professors with an interdisciplinary focus.

Earlier this academic year, the reappointments committee recommended to the college's president that the contract of Laurie Essig, an assistant professor of sociology, not be renewed. As it does in all such cases, the three-professor panel observed Essig in the classroom and consulted with the head of sociology and anthropology, her "home" department.

Don Wyatt, a professor of history at Middlebury and one of the three committee members, said he couldn't comment on what factored into the panel's recommendation, citing the confidential nature of the review process. Essig said she viewed the group's decision as an indictment on her classroom persona and style of teaching.

Essig asked for an appeal of the decision, saying that it didn't jibe with the positive evaluations from colleagues and students. A Middlebury appeals committee, ruling that there had been procedural errors during the review, directed the reappointments committee to take a second look. At the heart of the case: how much input the reappointments panel should seek from the department of women's and gender studies, which offers classes taught by Essig.

Essig's Middlebury contract states that her appointment is solely to the sociology-anthropology department, where she also teaches. The professor said that it's widely known, though not explicitly written in the contract, that hers is a joint appointment with sociology-anthropology, and women's and gender studies.

"In the job advertisement it says that. I have e-mails telling me I'm jointly appointed," Essig said. "No one ever gave me information that I wasn't, and it made sense to treat me as a joint appointee."

Sujata Moorti, chair of women's and gender studies, said she considered Essig to be a joint appointment, and her paperwork listed her as such. She said only after the reappointment committee's decision did she discover that contractually it wasn't the case.

The reappointment panel, in its initial review, had solicited and reviewed letters from Moorti and the head of the sociology-anthropology department, but focused attention on Essig's performance in her "home" department. Wyatt said in doing such, the group was following proper protocol. Committee members weren't required and chose not to speak directly to Moorti before making a decision. Wyatt said that even though the working assumption was that Essig was contracted to a single department, the committee recognized that Essig was "actively involved" as an instructor in women's and gender studies.

Essig said the decision not to speak with Moorti was a mistake. Moorti, as department chair, is best suited to speak to Essig's teaching style within the paradigm of feminist and queer theory, the professor said.

After an appeals committee directive to speak with Moorti, Wyatt's panel did so, and eventually reversed its recommendation against Essig's reappointment.

Both Essig and Moorti say they are delighted with the reversal, though Essig said her case shows that there are holes in the evaluation process. That confusion arose over how to assess a professor's work in two departments will come as no great shock to many who follow, and often provide commentary on, the growing interest in interdisciplinary work and joint appointments (official or not).

"The lesson learned is probably that a great deal of attention should be given to the contractual basis by which a person for a tenure-track position is initially hired," Wyatt said. "I think all parties, including the candidate, would benefit from being more circumspect with regard to that process."

That lesson, Wyatt added, isn't limited to Middlebury. He said institutions need to make decisions about how firmly they want to draw the line between the formal and informal joint appointment arrangement, and make sure that everyone involved in the process is clear on the terms.

Alison Byerly, Middlebury's provost and executive vice president, said the college has "a good procedure for ensuring that the multiple contributions a professor makes are adequately represented" when a joint appointment is clearly stated. But when that isn't a contractual obligation, she said, ensuring "adequate representation" is more difficult.

Moorti said that a contract that "more accurately reflected [Essig's] position may have resulted in a different [initial] decision." Still, she noted that she had provided her input to the reappointments committee (in the form of a written letter) in the first place. Were the original contract differently phrased, it is possible, Moorti added, that she could have been called in to explain how feminist pedagogy and a feminist classroom operate.

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