Reassessing Faculty Assessment

Association of American Colleges and Universities session focuses on what happens when institutions move beyond a basic teaching-scholarship-service model of faculty assessment. 

January 26, 2015

WASHINGTON – Most professors’ workloads don’t look like they did even 10 years ago, but institutions still largely evaluate faculty members by the age-old teaching-scholarship-service model. So what would happen if faculty members were assessed for the work they actually did, rather than by a system that wrongly assumes all faculty work is created equal? And is there a way to make the whole evaluation process more meaningful? These questions were the focus of a session here Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The session, called “Supporting Student Learning Through Holistic Faculty Evaluation,” was sponsored by the New American Colleges and Universities, a consortium of small to midsize private institutions. Some 16 member colleges and universities participated in a Teagle Foundation-funded project to improve and individualize the evaluation of faculty work, develop “holistic” department models, and advance the consortium’s focus on integrating professional studies and the liberal arts. The New American Colleges is working on a forthcoming monograph about the project, and faculty and administrators from two participating institutions – Valparaiso University and Sage Colleges – shared their experiences so far.

Jon Kilpinen, dean of Valparaiso’s College of Arts and Sciences and an associate professor of geography there, said the Faculty Senate recently approved a plan to move away from a one-size-fits-all, 24-credit annual teaching load to a new system based on teaching-load credits and workload credits for other kinds of professional activities. The idea was to promote and sustain the university’s teacher-scholar model by fairly rewarding professors for the work they do, and by allowing departments and small colleges within Valparaiso greater authority and flexibility to manage resources and talent.

A professor might take on fewer classes during a big research project, for example, Kilpenen said, without it requiring an “act of Congress.” It’s not necessarily an equal or “identical” system, he said, but it’s an “equitable” one.

The Valparaiso model works like this: Each faculty member is responsible for 24 workload credits per year, and one workload credit equals 45 hours of time on a particular task. Although individual faculty members aren’t responsible for a set number of teaching load credits, each academic unit must collectively deliver a minimum number of teaching load credits annually based on courses students need and want. The plan applies only to tenure-line faculty, so each department must deliver at least 18 teaching load credits times the total number of tenure-line faculty -- minus the workload credits of department administrators, or other professors with special duties.

Kilpinen said things like mentoring junior faculty, holding office hours, regular advising and most service on standing committees are the basic work of faculty members, and so don’t count for workload credits (that hasn't stopped faculty members from asking for credit for such work, however, he joked). Credit-eligible tasks include: leading assessment or accreditation work; research activity with a timeline and “deliverables,” or benchmarks; overseeing major curricular revisions; and journal editorships.

Each faculty member prepares an annual work plan with goals and target dates, and tries to balance workload credits and teaching load credits (now typically about three classes per semester instead of four). The department chair uses the plan in annual performance evaluations of individual faculty members. Workload credit goals set but not met may not be renewed, and could revert to teaching load credits.

“We don’t want to use this as a stick to beat people up with,” Kilpinen said. “We just want the faculty to be thoughtful about what they’re going to do over the year.” For example, he said, “Left to their own devices, junior faculty who know they’re supposed to do scholarship might say they’ll get to it in January, and get busy and then it’s May… But if you know there’s somebody checking in your progress, I think that can be a very productive part of the process.”

David Salomon, associate professor of English and director of undergraduate writing at Russell Sage College, talked about his institution’s efforts to make the faculty evaluation process more meaningful. Sage reworked its student evaluation of faculty teaching form to focus more on the student’s role in active learning, by asking students to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “You put effort into learning the material covered on this course” and “You were challenged to do your best work in this course.” The form also now asks students more directed, open-ended questions to avoid as much as possible subjective judgments about the teacher rather than his or her teaching. Questions include, “Please list and explain the things you found most/least effective about the instructor” and “Please list and explain and concrete suggestions for improving your learning in the course.”

Beyond student evaluations of teachers, each adjunct faculty member receives an annual teaching observation by a tenure-line faculty member. The annual review process for tenure-line faculty members includes a self-reflection narrative and a professional development plan mapping the coming year’s professional activities. Central to the whole process is rewarding faculty members for the work they actually do, not an antiquated notion of what faculty work is, Salomon said.

“One of the big issues here is to relook at teaching, scholarship and service and the collapsing boundaries between the three,” he said. “In a holistic department, someone might pick up more service, and we want to make sure we account for that in the evaluation, as well.”

The session was well-attended, and panelists fielded lots of questions about faculty work and evaluations. Many of the questions about Valparaiso’s workload plan centered on the fact that it assumes a high level of department-wide cooperation and organization. Molly Ware, associate professor education at Western Washington University, said the plan requires a degree of “trust” that might be “countercultural” for some departments.

Kilpinen said he agreed, but also said it wouldn’t benefit anyone to build a system according to the “lowest common denominator.” He said he’s looking forward to letting his strong departments “run with it,” and that the plan might force some other departments to address long-simmering issues. 

Most of the questions for Salomon dealt with subjectivity problem inherent in student evaluations. Several audience members asked if Sage’s new assessment tool did anything to alleviate documented gender and other biases that appear in student evaluations. Salomon said it didn’t, but that it was an important concern he’d raise with fellow faculty members as they continue to optimize the assessment.


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