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Faculty Evaluations:
Accounting for the “Unmeasurables”

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Although many academic units do not permit collegiality to be considered in faculty evaluations, tenure and promotion decisions in particular are often influenced by perceptions of how well a colleague gets along with others and conforms to the department’s culture.


The posting below looks at the importance of making unwritten rules about faculty performance more explicit. It is by L. Allen Furr and J. Emmett Winn* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Fall, 2017, Vol. 28, No. 2. Copyright © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone:  (203) 643-8066}


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Academia

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Faculty Evaluations:
Accounting for the “Unmeasurables”

In this era of accountability, the department chair occupies perhaps the most important position in evaluating faculty. At most colleges and universities, faculty members are reviewed annually and during promotion and tenure mileposts.

Research and anecdotal experiences indicate that faculty evaluation is among the most disliked and problematic tasks for chairs. Faculty evaluations are made difficult by the conditions in which we work, such as tenure and various other protections from unions and the academic culture. Furthermore, we work with people who, for the most part, have terminal degrees in their fields and are quite accomplished and accustomed to working alone and without supervision, leading many faculty to feel put out or even insulted by the evaluation process.

Nevertheless, faculty evaluations are becoming increasingly important, pay raises are merit based to various degrees, and the role of reviews in promotion and tenure has never been more critical. In addition, external forces holding colleges and universities ac- countable for their activities exert pressure on faculty reviews to follow a more “personnel management” style than in times past.

Most academic units have formalized expectations for annual reviews and for promotion and tenure. These criteria vary from one department and college to another, but academic units typically provide some sense of performance guidelines to serve as goals for faculty seeking promotion. These criteria are not often clearly stated, standardized, or objective, and faculty expect department chairs to provide them with goals and standards to set their sights on. The days of handing a new professor a key to an office and saying, “I’ll see you in six years,” are largely gone.

Performance evaluations should not solely be a top-down, linear process. Instead, faculty and administrators have responsibilities and a duty to engage in the evaluation process with the needs of both the faculty and the organization in mind. Faculty can rightly expect their organizations to provide definitions of acceptable results, coaching 
to help reach those results, and trustworthy administrators who understand the criteria and are effective communicators.

Likewise, faculty also have responsibilities. They’re accountable for knowing organizational rules and for making efforts to fulfill them. Colleagues in the early stages of their careers should focus on performing the work that will lead to professional success as well as enhance their students’ education and the prestige of their college or university. Furthermore, new professors are obliged to ask questions about expectations and “how the system works.”

It does seem to be the case that junior faculty members are indeed asking for more guidance and definitions of acceptable results than in decades past, and university administrations have largely complied by offering mentoring and more clearly articulated standards for tenure and promotion. Usually when we talk about performance targets, we are providing the formal, or “measurable,” goals that we expect colleagues to accomplish in order to achieve tenure and promotion.

Evaluation decisions, however, are not always limited to the formal expectations of annual reviews and tenure and promotion. In fact, coaching colleagues through the formal, measurable outcomes in faculty evaluations is relatively easy compared to mentoring early- career scholars through the often-stormy waters of the “unmeasurables”—department culture. Although many academic units do not permit collegiality to be considered in faculty evaluations, tenure and promotion decisions in particular are often influenced by perceptions of how well a colleague gets along with others and conforms to the department’s culture. These norms and values are not quantifiable or even well defined, even when rules allow for collegiality to be considered as a component of performance.

Where colleges and universities let departments consider collegiality in promotion and tenure evaluations, it is typically defined in
   a global or gestalt way, meaning that it’s not particularly objective. Collegiality is usually described in terms such as professional integrity, willingness to engage in shared administration and academic tasks, and conducting oneself professionally and in a manner that is compatible with the mission and goals of the organization. Of course, such language is subjective and hard to specify in terms of faculty evaluations. People may say, “I know collegiality when I see it,” but that’s hardly the basis for concrete performance reviews.

Of the two areas of evaluation—the measurables and unmeasurables—our experience as administrators has been that we hear relatively few complaints about measurable expectations of tenure and promotion. To 
the contrary, behavioral matters—that is, the informal expectations—are the issues most often brought to the attention of chairs, deans, and provosts. Sometimes the problems are personality clashes as in “this person is being mean to me,” and these situations may require an interpersonal level of intervention. More frequently, however, colleagues come to us with relational troubles associated with unit culture, and it’s these issues that can profoundly influence faculty evaluations, especially those concerning tenure and promotion.

All academic departments have a culture, a body of rules about how things are done. It’s an ethos and a set of beliefs about how academic life is understood and work is conducted. As in any culture, the academic environment evolves over time and is influenced by the discipline’s standards, department member personalities, and behavioral practices that have become institutionalized. Academic norms include both the formal parameters specified in university policies and the informal rules (folkways and mores in sociological parlance) that are meant to be equally understood and followed but are not codified.

Just as in the “real world” when someone is deviant and violates social norms, punishments or sanctions often follow. In an academic culture, a professor who does not comply with department norms is similarly deviant. Academic “deviants” are often seen as people who eschew the normative standards of their departments to pursue their own paths. They are believed to be out of step with others or not living up to some notion of appropriate behavior related to what it means to be a professor in that particular discipline and department.

Here’s an example. A professor says, “I’m well regarded in my discipline but not in 
my department.” What’s happening here? On several occasions when we’ve seen this, the faculty member was indeed publishing, sometimes even at a superior rate to those who were conducting the review. The difference? In one such case, the professor was not publishing according to department expectations, instead working with colleagues in another discipline and publishing in the colleagues’ journals. The professor didn’t know until the pre-tenure review milestone that department culture frowned on inter- disciplinary collaborations and did not value multidisciplinary publications. That those journals were prestigious in the other field mattered little.

Here’s another example of a professor unknowingly violating department cultural rules. A professor new to a research-heavy and primarily theoretical department was creating a successful career by publishing translational and applied research. His articles focused on the application of theoretical concepts, and although his research output was high and the journals accepting his papers were impressive, he received a poor performance evaluation. His papers, although original and interesting, were deemed “outreach,” not research, and his colleagues told him that such work was not considered worthy of a member of that department. As in the earlier example, the culture was not fully clear to him.

In these two situations, the professors were doing good and important work. They, however, were “not doing it right.” What was “it”? “It” was department norms and values, and the professors were violating those extra- policy rules: they were deviants and thereby subject to sanctions.

The good news is that departments can reduce these conflicts by articulating those unwritten mores clearly and specifically. To do this requires departments to understand themselves by engaging in reflexivity exercises in which department members reflect on the nature of their work, their profession, and how they relate to one another. Reflexivity is an exercise of deep self-understanding in which you strive to understand how your world is constructed and how that world affects you.

Department chairs should consider leading conversations among their colleagues 
to identify and label the various elements
 of their department’s environment. Departments are, after all, little societies that have an organization, a common litany of symbolic meanings, a shared language, and a collective perspective. For newcomers to a department, just like any other immigrant, learning this ethos is difficult, and they need help acquiring the skills and knowledge to survive in the society. If departments were to reflect on their culture and to simply write down the previously unwritten rules, then perhaps many conflicts that occur around performance evaluations could be reduced.

As faculty evaluations become more important in the everyday life of academic departments, the need to clarify professional expectations has never been higher. Consequently, ensuring that faculty responsibilities are comprehensively explained and elucidated has also never been so important. Of the many nightmare scenarios that chairs encounter, one that is avoidable is “I was denied tenure because no one explained the rules to me.” ▲

This article is based on a presentation at the 34th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference, February 8–10, 2017, New Orleans, Louisiana.

*L. Allen Furr is professor of sociology 
and faculty fellow for transformational leadership and J. Emmett Winn is professor
of communication and associate provost at Auburn University. Email:,