Linking Evaluations to Equity Contributions

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire policy will require all faculty and staff members to work toward equity, diversity and inclusion, for consideration in their evaluations. It's controversial, but proponents say it's an efficient way to put values into action.

May 12, 2017
U Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Big-budget diversity initiatives on a number of campuses have drawn praise and skepticism in recent years. The praise sounds like this: money dedicated to a cause signals its value and enables needed change. The skepticism centers on questions such as whether all students will benefit from, say, the hiring of 20 new professors who contribute to an institution’s diversity goals, or whether well-funded campuses will simply poach inclusion-attuned scholars from others, leaving winners and losers.

What if there was a more efficient, inexpensive way for institutions to live up to their diversity and inclusion goals? An unlikely institution says it has one.

“After 30 years in administration, I don’t have much tolerance for window dressing or lip service. If you’re going to put a value out there, you need to do something with it,” said James Schmidt, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and champion of its new policy requiring that all periodic evaluations of staff and faculty members -- including tenure and promotion decisions -- consider the employee’s contributions to equity, diversity and inclusion on campus.

Not exactly a hotbed of diversity, Eau Claire is a small, overwhelmingly white (upward of 90 percent) city in western Wisconsin, and the regional university there reflects its setting. Schmidt also described himself as an unexpected leader on equity, diversity and inclusion, saying that he didn’t come to Eau Claire four years ago with the initiative in mind. And as a straight white man, he felt relatively unequipped to head it, he said.

But as his campus, like so many others, faced calls for attention to climate, recruitment and retention issues for underrepresented groups over the past few years, it became clear it had to do something, he said.

Unfortunately for Eau Claire, the new desire coincided with dramatic state budget cuts to higher education, in 2015. Financially tethered, the institution quietly started discussions about how it might put its diversity goals -- including having a 20 percent minority student population within a decade -- into action anyway (something like satisfying champagne taste on a beer budget).

Through discussions with the faculty and, ultimately, through the University Senate’s Faculty Personnel Committee, Eau Claire proposed a policy saying that in addition to teaching, research and service -- the three pillars of faculty work -- all professors “are expected to contribute to university efforts towards equity, diversity and inclusivity.”

Such contributions “can be included in any of the three primary criteria for periodic review,” the policy said, but “all periodic reviews shall include an evaluation of the faculty member’s EDI engagement.” Contributions can be demonstrated through teaching and curricular development; scholarly activity; engagement in initiatives that directly serve underrepresented students, underrepresented faculty and/or underrepresented communities; professional development; or any other activities as defined in the approved evaluation plan.

While ethnic minorities are an important part of the university's efforts, the policy also pertains to gender, sexuality, disability, economic status, religion and other perspectives.

“This is to give us credit for what we’re already doing,” said Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a professor of history at Eau Claire who supported the policy in the senate. Far from a fourth tenure criterion, she explained, the new policy ensures that professors across fields who write on things such as inclusive pedagogy or participate in diversity-focused reading groups on campus are in some way rewarded for their attention to educational access.

For example, she said, the policy applies to mental health status -- things all instructors would benefit (and benefit their students) from knowing more about.

“This will also make us teach better and do better research and make us better faculty in all of our areas,” said Ducksworth-Lawton.

A policy very similar to the one originally proposed recently passed the senate by an overwhelming voice vote. It defines equity “as the fair and impartial treatment of all individuals” and diversity as the “structural and power differences among people, including, but not limited to, for example, differences in race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic status or perspectives.” Inclusivity is defined as “valuing the perspectives and contributions of all individuals.”

Individual departments and programs have the next year to determine exactly how their personnel committees will evaluate such work. The policy takes effect in 2018.

The policy had significant support but also, expectedly, for something dealing with personnel decisions, opposition. Major criticisms were that mandating equity and inclusion work might turn something innovative and enjoyable into something perfunctory, and that the policy language is unnervingly vague. How exactly will professors be evaluated, and what might happen if they don't meet some yet-to-be articulated standard? Might they not get a promotion, or a raise?

One senator proposed a failed amendment saying that contributions to equity and inclusion were “encouraged,” instead of “expected,” for example. The debate recalls, to some extent, a recent skirmish at Duke University’s Divinity School over a scholar’s harsh response to an invitation to a diversity awareness training session. The professor, who has reportedly since signaled he will resign, called such training a "waste" and a distraction from the central spiritual and academic missions of the school.

Politics vs. Policy

Sean McAleer, professor of philosophy and chair of philosophy and religious studies at Eau Claire, continues to share some of his colleagues’ concerns. He said this week that his opposition centers on the “equity” piece, in that it seems to incorporate a particular, stereotypically progressive conception of social justice that he might personally share but that seems wrong for a public institution -- especially one in Wisconsin, where there is already legislative antipathy toward academe’s liberal tilt.

A philosopher of language, he called the term equity an “essentially contested concept.”

“In evaluating faculty based on their contributions to equity, we seem to be evaluating them morally, which I think is not appropriate,” he said. “I’m bothered by the very possibility that someone who teaches well, is an active scholar and engages in service -- in other words, someone who is doing what we’ve always reasonably expected of faculty -- might not fare well when being reviewed for reappointment, tenure, promotion, posttenure review, etc., because they were judged to not be meeting this expectation.”

McAleer said that he supports the overall goals of diversity and inclusion on and off campus, and uses his own courses to talk about racialized language, for example. But “there’s a distinction between what our politics are and what policy should be.”

Kristin Schaupp, an associate professor of philosophy, also opposed the policy based on what she felt was a stifled vote within the senate. The discussion was limited to the policy proposal itself, rather than a broader discussion on other possible options and their consequences, she said via email. We pride ourselves on being a liberal arts campus and we know the benefits of having an honest dialogue, yet in this instance we were prevented from having an open and honest debate about the consequences of the motion out of a mere desire for expediency.”

Eau Claire will have a year to iron out the details as it continues to work on other goals for equity, diversity and inclusion. Its strategic plan, for example, says that by 2020, all faculty and staff members will participate in professional development to increase cultural and global competence. It also seeks to “restructure and broaden campuswide EDI efforts under centralized leadership,” such as by creating collaboration and accountability mechanisms. A new liberal education core will also “provide all students with tools for understanding systems of power, privilege and oppression; for recognizing and overcoming cultural biases; and for understanding and appreciating the diversity of our local and global communities.”

The campus has its lofty diversity goal for the student body, too, which involves recruiting 290 new students of color by 2020 to meet the 20 percent minority student threshold by 2024. There are faculty hiring goals, too. The plan frames this all as “living our commitment.”

The Way of the Future?

Schmidt said that over time, such goals have become imperatives to him. While Eau Claire’s overall population is still more than 90 percent white, he said, its K-12 schools are much more diverse -- meaning things are changing. White students also will benefit from the a more inclusive campus, he said, in that even if they come from towns where everyone looks and thinks like them, they need to know how to function in the much more heterogeneous workplaces they’ll likely end up in.

“And, by the way, this is the right thing to do," he added.

Eau Claire isn’t the only campus to develop a policy requiring faculty members to consider diversity issues. Pomona College’s faculty last year voted to change the criteria for tenure to specifically require candidates to be “attentive to diversity in the student body.” So assistant professors seeking promotion must "specifically address their efforts to create and maintain an inclusive classroom,” such as by describing classroom practices used to encourage the participation of a diverse student body.

Eric A. Hurley, associate professor of psychology and Africana studies at Pomona, helped draft the policy. A year in, he said recently, there’s little data to report, since this year’s reviews were exempted, pending a vote by the Board of Trustees. Some faculty members did voluntarily include diversity and inclusion statements with their dossiers, though, which Hurley called “encouraging.”

A committee continued to work on the policy this year, he added, including by going on a “listening tour” of various campus groups, including faculty members and students. The consensus was that it is a sensible step forward for the college.

Hurley said that colleges and universities have for too long allowed diversity, equity and inclusion work to be the “invisible labor” of the few who value it. So Eau Claire’s policy “looks great in affirming and codifying that EDI work is appropriately every faculty member's responsibility, and that good work in this arena has concrete value in reviews,” he said.

They, “like us,” he added, “will have to figure out what it looks like day to day and discipline to discipline, and especially how it will really function in evaluations, but the call for all hands on deck is a very important step.”


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