Annual Collegiality Reviews?

They could soon be a reality for professors at Sam Houston State U.

March 10, 2020
 

Sam Houston State University is considering adding collegiality to its list of tenure and promotion criteria. This follows a failed attempt to do so in 2018 when rating professors’ collegiality on a scale of one to 10 was proposed.

This time around, Sam Houston State wants to rate professors on whether they’re collegial or not, up or down. Still, the idea is controversial.

“Fifty percent of crazy is still crazy -- this really confuses the nature of management and the nature of evaluation systems,” Darren Grant, an associate professor of economics, said of the new proposal.

“We all know academia can have some characters and some of them can be unprofessional, but that’s a management problem,” Grant added. A collegiality policy, meanwhile, is more like a blunt human resources “tool to sweep up problems.”

Sam Houston State’s proposal links poor collegiality assessments to comprehensive performance evaluations and assisted faculty development plans. Timelines for remediation vary by plan, but the maximum extension of any plan is one year. After that, the faculty member’s fate is in the hands of the dean and provost. Possible outcomes to the process range from restoration to regular faculty status to getting a new remediation plan to -- most seriously, and to Grant’s point -- initiation of dismissal proceedings.

The proposed policy on faculty performance reviews affirms that the “university environment is based on the principles of free exchange of ideas and information.” It defines collegiality as “respectful interaction and professionalism that is consistent with advancing the department or university.” And, unless otherwise demonstrated and documented, it says, all faculty members are assumed to be “collegial members of the university community.”

Yet in “the rare instance” where a departmental personnel committee, chair or both have concerns, the chair will document evidence and pursue corrective action. Refusal to correct the concern could result in dismissal. All tenured and tenure-track faculty members would be reviewed annually on their collegiality, "to facilitate a conversation" on the topic.

Lack of collegiality includes “hindering” the missions of the department, program, school or university or again, hindering the effectiveness of one’s colleagues.

When university administrators first proposed the idea in 2018, they posited that collegiality is about collaboration and civility, the latter of which requires “avoidance of hostility and rudeness.” The university leaders also wanted faculty members to submit a report on their collegial efforts prior to their reviews, to help inform how chairs rated them on a one-to-10 scale.

That didn’t go over well. Faculty members objected to the rating scale, in particular. Administrators responded by forming an ad hoc committee to redraft faculty performance evaluation standards.

The committee revealed its updated policy proposals recently. So far, the animus hasn’t been as strong. But some faculty members continue to voice their objections to a collegiality criterion, including at a town hall Grant attended last week.

“The goal of the current review process is to ensure that we have a group of polices that collectively provide for a robust evaluation process focused on the professional development of faculty,” Richard Eglsaer, provost, wrote to faculty members in a recent memo. “This will be a transparent process that seeks input from faculty from across all colleges and ranks. With your help, we will continue to have a fair and equitable process that encourages and rewards faculty over the span of their career.”

Christopher Maynard, a vice provost who served on the ad hoc committee, wrote in a similar memo that his group will review all feedback and make “adjustments to the policies, as appropriate.” Finalized policies will be reviewed by the university's general counsel and other groups before being sent to the president.

Lee Miller, professor of sociology, a member of the ad hoc committee and chair-elect of the Faculty Senate, said via email that the committee is in the process of assessing responses from faculty members.

“At the moment we are still in an input-gathering phase of work on our Faculty Review Policies. Any comment on the polices at this point would be premature,” she wrote.

Michael Hanson, head of library technical services, another committee member, and the current Faculty Senate chair, also declined immediate comment.

Beyond issues of management, faculty advocates, including the American Association of University Professors, have long opposed collegiality as a factor in tenure decisions. This, they say, is because inquiry and discovery are fundamental to what professors do, and anything that threatens that -- say, being called uncollegial because you're working on a highly controversial idea or you oppose a new institutional policy -- threatens academic freedom.

To quote AAUP policy on the matter, “In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘dedication,’ evince ‘a constructive attitude’ that will ‘foster harmony,’ or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.”

That said, the AAUP doesn’t deny that collegiality is a part of the faculty job description. But the organization believes professors' willingness and ability to be collegial is demonstrated in their teaching, research and service records. So it is part of the traditional faculty responsibility triad, not a fourth leg.

Others disagree and point out that faculty members don't have managers in the typical sense and argue that there is a need to formally enforce expectations of collegiality. But disagreement has ensued wherever faculty members or administrators have tried to push collegiality as a separate faculty evaluation criterion. The University of Arkansas system faced intense pushback when it proposed making what sounded a lot like collegiality a part of faculty evaluations in 2017. The final policy doesn’t include the exact term, but it is nevertheless part of a 2019 lawsuit brought by three professors who say it unfairly widens grounds for dismissal. One of the new justifications for dismissal, for example, is defined as a "pattern of conduct that is detrimental to the productive and efficient operation of the instructional or work environment." (A footnote reads, "This need not be a separate component in the evaluation criteria of faculty, but may be considered in evaluating faculty in the areas of teaching, research and service.")

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also has weighed in against using collegiality or similar terms as tenure criteria.

“During my time at FIRE and my experience investigating faculty cases, I have seen how these charges can work,” Peter Bonilla, the organization's vice president of programs, wrote of the Arkansas changes.​ “Collegiality-related charges are easily and frequently thrown in as a laundry-list item in faculty investigations, and often it is the only charge universities can make stick.” ​

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