Friday, February 12, 2010

Are Most Effective Faculty Contributors “Permanent Associate Professors"?

I attended the annual address to the University Senate presented by Ohio State's Executive Vice President and Provost Joseph A. Alutto late last week. While I do not normally go to Senate sessions, I was given the heads-up that his address would include a discussion of potential changes to our promotion standards.

Although we talk about the need to have balance in their portfolios, the reality is when it comes to promotions to full professor faculty dossiers become a monopod: research. Some faculty have responsibilities that are essential for the organization to succeed, as is the case within the University Libraries system. The work of library faculty involved in e-resources or building digital collections make visible and demonstrably outstanding contributions to the missions of the university. The perception communicate by many faculty is that since such activities are not traditional research they will not given much weight in full professor deliberations.

Provost Alutto's observations support this perception:

"That leads me to the standards used for promotion from associate professor to full professor. Here I am talking about cases in which the 30- to 40-year compact between university and professor, the thing we call tenure, has already been agreed to and celebrated. Given that this commitment has been made, the next question is what should be the basis for advancement from associate professor (with tenure) to full professor (with tenure)...

"One answer, and the one that is most reflected in our formal documents and policies, is “more of the same.” That is, a full professor is supposed to have more publications, greater teaching achievements, and higher service contributions to justify promotion. Wonderfully, for many faculty members, this is exactly the pattern we see played out. They continue to perform powerfully on all dimensions. However, in reality, promotion to professor tends to be based primarily on assessments of the impact of a faculty member’s scholarship in a particular discipline.

"If one reviews hundreds of such promotion cases, as does any provost, it becomes clear that promotion to full professor tends to be reserved for those whose research impact is clearly superior. The faculty member whose primary impact and distinctive contributions are in the areas of dissemination of knowledge through teaching or service to the university or professional associations will tend to be passed over for promotion to full professor—unless a department can find a way to “fudge” a demonstrated level of research impact."

As the Provost points out, this approach is insidiously harmful. It generates cynicism among productive faculty when they realize the “game” being played. This can frustrate productive faculty who contribute to their disciplines and the university in ways other than traditional research. It not only flies in the face of everything we have been told about the need for a balanced portfolio, it also overlooks the need to recognize evolving interests and skills. It tends to exacerbate to dysfunctional levels all differences in perspective about what is valuable, both personally and institutionally.

The Provost continues:

"Given these observations, I intend to work with faculty and administrative groups to begin focusing on the following:

  1. making certain that there are clear criteria for assessing “impact”—whether in terms of research, teaching, or service in cases of promotion to professor; in all such cases, these criteria should involve both quantitative and qualitative measures, most of which will require seeking data from external sources rather than relying on purely internal ones
  2. ensuring clear identification of the bases for promotion to professor; these might well be focused on excellence in teaching or service, as well as knowledge creation;
"Measuring impact is always difficult, particularly when it comes to teaching and service. But it can be done if we focus on the significance of these activities as it extends beyond our own institution—just as we expect such broad effects with traditional scholarship. Thus, indicators of impact on other institutions, recognitions by professional associations, broad adoption of teaching materials (textbooks, software, etc.) by other institutions, evidence of effects on policy formulation, and so on—all these are appropriate independent indicators of effectiveness. And these indicators are no more nuanced or ambiguous than averaged SEI’s or lists of committees on which one has served.

One challenge I see is that the current review paradigm places heavy weight on external evaluation letters. However, such reviewers are only provided copies of a candidate's scholarly works and asked to comment only on a faculty member's 'scholarship.' Reviewers are not asked to comment on, or even provided evidence of, any activities that are seen by the review body as a part of the candidate's 'job.' Since these external letters are the only 'peer-review' evidence given to the review body they not only carry weight, they naturally make the deliberations focus on scholarship. Either a much broader body of evidence must be provided to these reviewers or targeted content experts will need to be identified to comment on very specific activities.

Another issue I see is the evaluation of the impact of a faculty member's activities. The current focus on traditional scholarship means that review bodies understand the journal impact factors or book reviews as the evidence of impact. How does one determine the impact of a web site that serves as an access point to a new body of knowledge or a piece of software that puts research in the hands of rural doctors three days sooner than previous delivery methods?

In any case, moving towards the vision outlined by Provost Alutto will require much more work by both the review body and the candidate. It is the prospect of moving towards a process that requires more work and time that will likely stand in the way of change and will slow down any adoption of the Provost's vision. Yet, he is clear:

"In effect, I believe that senior rank recognition, that is to say the awarding of the title of professor, should also be available to colleagues who have made visible and demonstrably outstanding contributions to the teaching and service missions of the Ohio State University."
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1 comment:

Beth said...

Thank you for this post, very interesting. As someone who contributes to my profession (librarian) via teaching, creating web content, and contributing at a national level to several professional organizations, it's nice to see that some universities are beginning to see value in non-traditional routes to tenure.

I'll be interested to see if you are right, however, in that this will be more work, meaning it will be less likely to be supported. Keep us informed!