Post-tenure Review from a Growth Mindset

by Kiernan Mathews

A woman in a pantsuit and heels climbing stairsI recently fielded a question from a COACHE partner who wanted to know about institutions doing good work in annual appraisal processes that makes real distinctions in faculty performance. There are effective, developmental, faculty-driven approaches, and COACHE data can be deployed to identify them. At our project, however, we start with frameworks—the four lenses of Reframing Organizations by Bolman and Deal are a favorite device here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Structural or Human Resource?

Academic administrators will, at their own risk, seek a structural solution on merit (carrots) and/or post-tenure review (sticks).

  • On the carrot side, we used to teach a case here—“Meade College”—that tests the unintended consequences of introducing merit pay in an egalitarian culture. It’s a wonderful/awful spiral down the academic drain of culture vs. structure. Without getting into the details, let it suffice to say that because policy is the artifact of an underlying culture, changing the policy doesn’t (usually) change the culture—and in fact, can create an allergic organizational reaction.
  • As for sticks, the mere mention of “post-tenure review” (or its synonyms) could provoke faculty into a frenzy out of proportion with your or any administrator’s intentions. (Fran Lawrence offered a colorful example from his experience at Rutgers.) I think sticks are available (and useful) only in limited cases, anyway, and not in any way that can really be articulated in a formal policy. For what it’s worth, Hanover Research published a report reviewing post-tenure review systems at medium-sized, comprehensive universities with unionized faculty. My understanding of self-determination theory, however, gives me a skeptical outlook on extrinsic motivation mechanisms such as these.

I fully admit my bias against structural solutions as “worth considering but never sufficient” in addressing what is, more times than not, a departmental/disciplinary culture issue. Looking at the topic through a human resource frame—or as Bob Kegan would put it, assuming a growth mindset—I would look to initiatives that seek to understand the “low performers” (perhaps they’re just performing something you don’t know how to measure, how to value, etc.) and then to work with them to “revision” their academic careers. A COACHE white paper on midcareer faculty provided a several examples, notably from the University at Albany’s "Career, Leadership and University Excellence program and a career redevelopment activity at James Madison University.


Using COACHE’S Data to Find Exemplars

Looking at COACHE survey results over the past three years tells us at COACHE which campuses do well on these “Departmental Quality” items. I asked their senior academic administrators: How do you explain your faculty’s satisfaction with departments ability to address sub-standard performance for the tenured? (This is one of the items in the “Departmental Quality” theme of the COACHE survey.)

Florida State University’s Janet Kistner, Vice President for Faculty Development and Advancement, offered the following in response:

First, we take faculty evaluations seriously.  All academic departments must have written bylaws that include standards and procedures for faculty evaluations.  If tenured faculty members are performing below expectations (based on peer review within their academic units), then this is reflected in their annual evaluations.  Negative evaluations can and often do lead to changes in work assignments.  For example, faculty members who maintain active programs of scholarship/creative activity may be assigned to teach fewer courses and, conversely, those with little evidence of scholarship/creative activity may be assigned additional teaching or other duties.  The idea is that we all need to contribute to the mission of our academic programs and to the university overall.  Faculty are provided with plenty of feedback about their performance and reasonable opportunities to address any concerns before changes in assignments are made.  I think being clear about expectations for performance and providing regular and constructive feedback contribute to the positive ratings by our faculty.

Secondly, for full professors, a sustained performance evaluation is conducted every seven years.  Increases to base salaries are awarded to full professors who have continued to contribute substantially to the university in their assigned areas of teaching, scholarship/creative activity, and service.  Those with substandard performance are not eligible for these increases. 

At Stonehill College, Provost Joseph Favazza took note that the faculty were fast approaching the institution’s self-imposed “tenure cap” of 65%. The faculty senate wanted the board to consider raising or removing the cap; the board was open to the suggestion but wanted assurances that departments were managing quality, for example, through post-tenure review. The provost and the dean of faculty spoke with chairs about their processes. They recommended that instead of all tenured faculty being reviewed every three years, they proposed that tenured associate professors be reviewed every three years and professors every five years using standard templates—teaching accomplishments, research accomplishments and so on. Favazza explained his next move:

And so we worked on it with faculty and made it much more reflective—not just “what have you done,” but, “what are some of the things you still need to do.” We realized as with most processes like this, there’s no closing the loop—what happens if you get a bad review? If at the end of the day the chair and dean both feel like there’s some significant issues to work on, then the dean can request that the faculty member have an annual evaluation as opposed to every three years or five. If there’s no significant progress after three years the dean can start a grievance process with the faculty member. And the chairs were actually bigger supporters than we expected—some of them said, “Hey, we can actually use this!” And it became not a punitive process, but instead a developmental process.

These were institutions with high faculty ratings on addressing sub-standard tenured faculty performance. Our “Benchmark Best Practice” research produced a report on the “Departmental Quality” (and other department-focused) survey theme, where this single item resides. Based on the feedback from high-performing campuses, that report advised that campuses should:

  • Provide chair training for handling performance feedback for tenure-track faculty members (e.g., annual reviews, mid-probationary period reviews), tenured faculty members (e.g., post-tenure review, annual or merit review, informal feedback); and non-tenure-track faculty members.
  • Discuss the vitality of the department by using COACHE benchmarks and analytical data whenever possible to keep these matters from becoming overly-personalized.
  • Be an advocate for faculty participation in activities in the campuses’ center for faculty excellence (or teaching and learning, or the like).
  • Use department meetings as more than just a review of a list of chores, but as an opportunity for generative thinking. Enlist colleagues to discuss new teaching and research methods or to present case studies for faculty to problem-solve. Using this structured time to initiate departmental engagement may encourage continued engagement outside of departmental meetings. As often as possible, ask departmental colleagues to volunteer to co-present.


Starting with Your Own COACHE Data

Finally, or rather firstly, your very next step should be to look to your own data to seek out your institution’s own best practices. I analyzed the data from 2011 to 2015 on this “substandard performance” item. The boxplot below shows the distribution of COACHE institutional averages (on the left) and one (anonymous) institution’s departmental averages (on the right).

Boxplot showing distribution of COACHE institutional averages (on the left) and one (anonymous) institution’s departmental averages (on the right).

Naturally, we see greater variance when looking within a single institution—each unit has a smaller N, to begin with—but what we also see, instantly, is that this institution has departments where faculty are quite satisfied on this dimension. What are they doing that might be modeled elsewhere on campus? We encourage such ”intramural” transfers of practice because they tend to be much more palatable to faculty than are transplants from other institutions.


Final Thoughts

To learn more about academic reward systems, start with this bibliography from KerryAnn O’Meara, one of my favorite scholarly authorities on matters of faculty.  When you are ready to proceed, maintain a growth mindset, not a fixed one, and partner with faculty one department at a time. Although it may be easier to change a policy on a piece of paper, attention to departmental cultures and individual behaviors will yield more sustainable changes—and will keep your fingers away from the proverbial “third rail” of post-tenure review.


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