Underperforming … or struggling?
In my university, we have an aggressive system of biennial
evaluation that provides merit increments to faculty members
who “outperform” their peers (re. “Academic underperformers
must be called out,” February 2017 issue). I have noticed that,
year after year, those who fail to prove their merit under this
system are people who are struggling with chronic or acute
medical conditions, who have sole responsibility for the care
of a disabled parent or a small child, or people who have
reached a temporary and highly frustrating impasse in long
and respected research and teaching careers. I don’t know
anyone who is lazy; if people are “underperforming”
temporarily, in my experience there’s usually a reason.
Dr. Dean is a professor of English at the University of Victoria.
Assessing underperformance is the tricky part
i agree with the sentiment behind Gerald
Walton’s op-ed piece on academic underperformers. The devil is in the details of how to
assess underperformance in order to redress it.
It is there that accountability systems ultimately
become more bother than they’re worth. The
more of them we put in place, the more the good
workers and high achievers have to invest their
time in filling in forms. Because they are conscientious, they do a good job of it. The slackers
and the coasters have to fill in the same forms,
but they do a poor job because that’s what they
do. This means more bureaucratic labour for the
people doing their jobs properly, a burden that
falls hardest, I would think, on the untenured
who are harried by the pressure of tenure clocks
and publish-or-perish, and on the members of
the academic community from equity-seeking
groups who have fewer of the privileges that
their colleagues enjoy, such as the benefit of the
doubt that their work is sound.
Accountability systems also mean that some
third party – the dean, the merit committee, the
department head – has to do even more work to
get the slacker paperwork up to snuff when it is
late, incomplete, poorly done, etc. One could
respond by saying, “Well, let them fail and then
hold them accountable.” But that, too, brings more
work to those who have to follow through on mak-
ing accountability stick, as well as to faculty asso-
ciations who have a duty to support their members
when their work performance is questioned.
In my view, the answer to the dilemma
instead lies with hiring committees. Don’t hire
someone – no matter how good they may look
on paper – who doesn’t have a reputation for
being a conscientious scholar who tries to hold
up their end of the bargain. These people are
usually not too hard to spot.
Dr. Ellis is an assistant professor in the department of educational
studies at the University of British Columbia.
A couple of things
i was interested and puzzled by a couple of
items in the February 2017 issue. The proposal
by Gerald Walton (“Academic underperformers
must be called out”) is hardly original: in order
to deal with “dead wood,” one might say, one
www.affairesuniversitaires.ca / février 2017 / 41
“Why should stretched
public dollars go to
salaries for people who
do not do their jobs?”
À mon avis
In my opinion
The tenure compact
must be called out
by Gerald Walton
Gerald Walton is an associate
professor in the faculty of
education at Lakehead
Cet article est également
disponible en français
sur notre site web,
llow me to stick my neck out. For many
years, I have observed many hard-work-
ing, full-time, tenured professors excel
in the three pillars of academic work:
While it is the case that underperformers exist
in every work sector, full-time professors have a
particular privilege that others do not have in the
form of tenure. Tenure is widely misunderstood
as job protection, even by some among us who
have it. Contrary to the job-protection assumption,
Michiel Horn (Academic Freedom in Canada: A
History, 1999) argues that tenure is the scholarly
triptych of “intellectual independence, collective
autonomy, and the time and financial security
needed to carry on scholarly and scientific work.”
The key phrase here is “carry on,” which pre-
sumes that scholarly productivity is happening
in the first place. Tenure is not implicit permis-
sion or freedom to underperform. Yet, it doesn’t
seem to matter. Those who chronically and
severely underperform usually retain all of the
benefits of tenure, financial and otherwise,
By virtue of having tenure, scholars should be
held to higher account. In addition to withholding
annual increments, professional development
allotments and sabbatical from those who do not
do their jobs, another way to cultivate greater
accountability is rigorous post-tenure review.
Advocating for such a review is not to suggest that
collective bargaining should be tossed out the
window or faculty agreements ripped up. It is not
to endorse a zealous, evangelical call to privatize
and let the marketplace chips fall where they may.
Rather, it is about integrity.
Perhaps it is too much work to light a fire
under these underperforming professors. Perhaps
they are too protected by tenure, enabling them
to ride the wave, leaving their colleagues to do
the heavy lifting. For busy deans, it might result
in a headache to withhold annual increments
and sabbatical, risking outcries and complaints
filed with faculty associations. However, letting
it slide perpetuates a divide between those who
pull their weight and those who do not, year after
year. In a parallel way, if I were to discover that
a student has plagiarized on an assignment, my
professional life would be easier if I pretended it
didn’t happen. But, I wouldn’t be doing my job.
Neither do administrators who allow underperformance, even non-performance, to slide.
On one hand, I call for raising the standards
of accountability but, on the other hand, I do not
want to give fiscal conservatives leverage by
which to strengthen their position. I am aware
that “standards” and “accountability” are neolib-
eral terms that skew universities into businesses.
I also understand that a one-size-fits-all approach
to standards is not equitable. For instance, some
indigenous scholars feel penalized by a system
that does not recognize their contributions that
fall outside of the restrictive boundaries of peer-
Yet, these challenges are no reason to not
engage in the conversation about responsibility.
Why should stretched public dollars go to undeserved six-figure salaries, plus benefits, for people who do not do their jobs? In my view, such
continued financial support is not tenable, sustainable or ethical.
One might argue that the work performance
of my colleagues is none of my business. Actually,
it is. The lack of productivity from some results in
chronic workload inequity. Further, public confidence in universities may incur further damage.
It is no wonder that cynicism and confusion
abound about the good work that we actually do.
Some may perceive my argument as threatening, misunderstanding it as opposition to collective bargaining and the tenure system. I might
even be viewed as some sort of traitor. Doing so
wilfully misconstrues my argument. I am a
strong advocate of collective bargaining and tenure. What I endorse is not their erosion, but a
strengthening of them by correcting for deficien-cies that allow highly privileged people to get
away with not doing their jobs. Failing to address
the issue encourages mediocrity in contexts
where excellence should be the norm.
ought to monitor tenured faculty to ensure they
are doing their job. He is completely right that
faculty have a moral duty to pull their weight and
carry out teaching and research. Whether talk of
“productivity” helps is another issue, since a torrent of mediocre publications is not necessarily
to be preferred to one definitive article or book.
More may not be better, in other words.
The problem with his idea is that it breaks
down upon a moment’s thought: a glance at the
U.K. higher education system provides a nightmarish scenario of what can happen when
politicians decide to scrutinize academia. The
latest Research Excellence Framework exercise
there cost nearly 250 million pounds. Carried
out under different names since the 1980s, the
exercise expends huge amounts of time and
effort to evaluate all the research of British
universities. And yet problems with the criteria
remain: How is one to evaluate articles? And
books? Does one read them all? Or judge them
on the journal or publisher? If we tried to assess
our colleagues in Canadian universities, what
weight should one give to outreach activities,
for instance? Who would decide? In short, we
would create a monster that would yield minimal
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