Why I support a change to faculty reviews

Executive council is proposing a change to the faculty merit review process that will come up for a vote at the May 6th faculty meeting. I think this is an important proposal, and it’s one I plan to support. I’m writing this in the hope that my colleagues will read it and support the proposal too; if you find this argument compelling I hope you will share this with other colleagues in advance of the faculty vote.

I’ll note that much of my discussion focuses on the reviews of tenured faculty. This proposal applies to merit reviews of faculty whose appointments do not include the possibility of tenure, but I’m drawing mainly from my experience in a tenure-track position.

The Proposal

The original proposal appeared at our April faculty meeting, but I am writing about the updated proposal for the May meeting. That proposal reads:

Executive Council proposes suspending for three years the merit process described in the Faculty handbook for determining individual salary recommendations. After three years, in the absence of faculty approval of either (a) an extension of the trial period or (b) a change to the handbook, the faculty raise process would revert back to the process currently described in the Faculty Handbook.

What we are considering is a suspension of merit reviews for faculty past tenure, or past the comparable review for non-tenure track faculty. Under the existing process, faculty go through a merit review every three years. This requires effort from the faculty member, a review chair, and the faculty salary committee. The result of this process is a numeric score on a five-point scale that determines a portion of a faculty member’s raises over the following three years.

Without merit reviews, how will we determine raise amounts? This is an area where the new proposal differs significantly from the original proposal:

During the three-year suspension, faculty salary increases will either be determined by: (i) using the merit scores they were most recently assigned until the score expires, or (ii) the average merit score assigned to all faculty. Faculty with merit scores that result in a raise that is less than the average will receive the average merit score. The nature of the raise, whether percentage or dollar amount or a combination of the two, will continue to be set each year by the faculty salary commitee.

So under this new model, faculty who received a below-average score in their most recent merit review would immediately change to the average merit score. For faculty who received an above-average score in their last review, it seems they will switch to the average score three years after that review. My support for this proposal comes from my concerns about faculty workload, the need for a culture of trust among college faculty, and the potential for bias in the existing review process.

Arguments in Support of this Proposal

I support this proposal for a variety of reasons, which I’ll lay out below. Some of these arguments are relevant to the three-year transition period and whatever new review process we adopt, while others are specific to the transition period and the timing of our vote this spring.

Merit reviews are labor intensive

The biggest reason I see to suspend our current review process is that it is incredibly time-consuming. Grinnell faculty consistently point to our unsustainable workload as a significant source of job stress and dissatisfaction. And yet, when it comes time to shed some of that workload, we have been hesitant to let go of anything. We should be thinking seriously about the value of the work we do relative to the time it takes, both on our part and across the college generally. I think merit reviews are an excellent candidate for work that we could shed as faculty, precisely because they take so much time but achieve so little. I’ll roughly estimate the labor that goes into a faculty review to get a sense of this imbalance.

To start, the faculty member under review must complete a salary review form. This form requires a reflection on teaching, scholarship, service, and other professional responsibilities. The resulting document is shorter than a full context statement but includes much of the same material. I’ll assume a diligent faculty member under review would spend at least three hours preparing this document.

Next, a review chair can prepare an optional statement in support of the faculty member under review. My understanding, based on conversations with colleagues, is that a review that is missing the optional statement is likely to yield lower merit scores for the faculty member. I will presume that review chairs will choose to support their colleagues in this process, which will require at least three hours for course observations, an hour or two of discussion with the faculty member being reviewed, and another two hours (minimum) to prepare the chair’s letter. I will assume the review chair will spend seven hours on their part of this process.

Finally, salary committee (made up of the division chairs and chair of the faculty) must make determinations about merit scores from review documents. At least two faculty will need to read the submitted materials, and then each case will be discussed at a committee meeting. If each reader spends 45 minutes reviewing one case, that adds 1.5 hours of faculty labor for the review. If salary committee then spends just 7.5 minutes discussing each case, that adds another half hour of faculty time to the review process, bringing salary committee’s obligations up to 2 hours.

This brings us to a total time commitment of 12 hours for each faculty review. This may not seem significant on its own, but scaled over the 40 or so reviews that happen each year, this is a commitment of nearly 500 hours of faculty time. The AAUP’s latest data on faculty salaries shows that associate professors at bachelor’s granting institutions earn an average of $90,400 on a nine- or ten-month contract. If we pretend for a moment that faculty only work 40 hours a week during those nine months, that gives us an average hourly rate of $58/hr. That means each salary review costs nearly $700 of faculty time, with the collective cost of this labor exceeding $27,000.

My feelings, and the impression I get from my colleagues, is that time pressure is a more important factor than pay when we think about our work. To put those 12 hours in context, that is nearly five weeks of class time for a course that meets for 50 minutes three days a week. Even if more than half that time was spent preparing for class, we’re looking at labor comparable to a faculty member teaching two additional weeks of class for each review. If executive council had brought us a proposal to replace fall break with an additional week of classes every three years, would we seriously consider this?

Of course, the time commitment associated with reviews is not uniformly distributed across the faculty or over our nine-month contracts. The work is concentrated during specific times of the semester and is carried out by a small subset of our colleagues. Salary committee will bear the largest burden, with 20 hours per member spent on reviews every year. This displaces other work members of executive council could take on and discourages faculty from serving on executive council in the first place. Review chairs have a lower time commitment, with the faculty member under review taking on the smallest share of the responsibility. But we do ultimately share this burden regardless of our specific service obligations; when colleagues serve on executive council or as review chairs, that work displaces something else. When the impact affects a colleague’s time to contribute to their work, we all take on a share of those responsibilities. Another likely outcome is that colleagues sacrifice their time outside of work to take on these added responsibilities. I see colleagues make sacrifices like this at the cost of both job satisfaction and the well-being of their families.

Given these costs, it seems important that we get something useful from our merit reviews. That leads to the next point I’d like to make in support of the proposal to suspend the current review process.

Reviews do not produce meaningful feedback

If we are going to spend time evaluating our colleagues, that evaluation should yield something that we value at least as much as the time commitment it incurs. So what value can we draw from the current review process? The answer is “shockingly little.”

My last review was a tenure review, not a salary review, but I think the point I am making still holds. In that review, I received a merit score of 4.5. This score is the weighted average of my teaching (0.45), scholarship (0.25), service (0.2), and an additional contribution from the highest of the three (0.1). The number is then rounded to the nearest quarter point. I am left to guess at the component scores since the faculty member under review only receives the combined score.

My point in bringing this up is not to complain about my merit score, just that the combined score conveys nothing about what I should be doing to develop as a faculty member. Maybe a committee determined that my service and teaching are exceptional, but my scholarship needs additional time. Or perhaps my scholarship is an area of strength but teaching needs additional attention. A committee took the time to make these determinations, plugged the numbers into a formula, and then threw away the underlying reasoning. I have heard similar stories from colleagues about the feedback they received in their reviews, ranging from puzzlement to frustration; a consistent thread is that we have no idea how our accomplishments were valued, or where we should be focusing our efforts. This is not a healthy or productive process.

If I had the component scores from my evaluation that would be slightly more useful, but what I actually want is developmental feedback. What guidance would my peers offer for improving my teaching? Should I be taking on more committee service? Do my colleagues believe my scholarly work is having the kind of impact we expect from tenured faculty? None of these are conveyed in the merit review process, and even with a department letter from my tenure review process, I have very little to go on. The only conclusion I can draw from my tenure review is that I’m doing well enough to receive tenure. Going forward, what would I gain from a process with even less feedback and none of the stakes associated with a tenure review? Certainly nothing worth 10+ hours of my colleagues’ time.

Our current review model reinforces a lack of trust

I believe Grinnell has a cultural problem around trust. I have heard colleagues argue that, without merit reviews, faculty would simply stop working hard after tenure. I think this is an enormous red flag. We hire and evaluate our colleagues based on their commitment to teaching, their work as scholars, and their contributions to the campus community. When we award tenure to a faculty colleague, that is an expression of our trust that they will continue to grow in their teaching and scholarship and will contribute to the college generally, or at least it should be. If we don’t trust someone to do these things, why did they receive tenure in the first place?

A merit review process that leads us to nitpick (in an opaque, unobservable manner) over our colleagues’ work breeds distrust. When we tell our tenured colleagues that they cannot be trusted to do their jobs, that can only hurt the campus climate.

Furthermore, I trust my colleagues to make judgments about how they can best contribute to Grinnell. If a colleague wants to take on an ambitious scholarly project for the next several years, I trust them to do that even if it cuts into their service work and slows their growth as a teacher. Similarly, if someone is willing to take on one of the critical service roles at the college—even if it cuts into their teaching or scholarship—I want them to do that. I cannot be the only faculty member who has noticed that filling certain committees at the college feels more like a draft than an election; perhaps colleagues with a passion for institutional service would be more likely to take on those roles if they weren’t penalized for it in their upcoming merit reviews.

All this is to make the point that granting tenure is a reflection of trust. When we tell our colleagues we trust them, we should mean it.

Reviews open the door to bias

There are opportunities for bias in the current review process that I think are quite serious. We aren’t all experts in each others’ disciplines, so we rely on colleagues in a reviewee’s discipline to assess their work, both in their scholarship and teaching. For a merit review, this context comes from a single member of the department. The review chair might opt not to write a letter, leaving the reviewee without discipline-specific support for their case. Or a review chair may disagree with the reviewee’s approach to teaching or with their scholarly agenda. These disagreements could be fair and important, or they could be the result of our individual biases.

The next phase of the review process may not uncover these biases, both because salary committee will not have the disciplinary expertise to recognize all possible biases, and because of the incredibly limited time they have to spend on any one review. If I chair a colleague’s review, should my personal views about their approach to teaching—including any implicit or explicit biases—impact the salary they receive for the next three years?

This is particularly concerning when it comes to the intersection of identity and our work as teachers. My approaches to teaching are inflected with my experiences as a white, male instructor in a discipline dominated by white, male professionals. For example, I try to use teaching practices that I hope will lessen power distance in my classroom. But given what we know about bias in our classes, a woman of color teaching a computer science class would almost certainly try to achieve something different with her teaching practices. I can appreciate and understand these differences, but I can’t experience them directly. I rely on my peers to check my own implicit biases, and I can help to check theirs. That check is not available if I am the sole disciplinary expert sitting in judgment of a colleague.

I don’t mean this to contradict my earlier point about trusting colleagues. We don’t award tenure to colleagues because we believe them to be free from bias; that would be naive. We have to recognize that we all have biases, and we can mitigate them through collaborative work. We do that in the interim, complete, and tenure reviews by asking a committee of tenured faculty to evaluate their colleagues. We could do the same for merit reviews, but that makes them substantially more burdensome.

Arguments Against this Proposal

There was some opposition to executive council’s proposal at the April faculty meeting. This opposition was based on an assertion about the effect of this trial period on faculty salaries. I’ll do my best to recreate the analysis that was referenced in faculty meeting, although we were not given the actual calculations.

I will start with the AAUP average salary from before, $90,400 for a nine-month contract. Last spring, all faculty received a 1.5% raise across the board, plus $470 per merit point. If we assume the raise calculations stay the same over the next three years we can calculate the salaries for faculty earning merit scores from 1–5 over the next three years, all under our current system of reviews.

Merit Score: 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5
Current Salary $90,400 $90,400 $90,400 $90,400 $90,400 $90,400 $90,400 $90,400 $90,400
After Year 1 $92,226 $92,461 $92,696 $92,931 $93,166 $93,401 $93,636 $93,871 $94,106
After Year 2 $94,079 $94,553 $95,026 $95,500 $95,973 $96,447 $96,921 $97,394 $97,868
After Year 3 $95,961 $96,676 $97,392 $98,107 $98,823 $99,539 $100,254 $100,970 $101,686

While the table is useful for reference, the high-level takeaway is much simpler. With one additional merit point, a faculty member’s salary will be $470 higher after one year, $947 higher after two years, and $1,431 higher after three years of raises at this level. That gives the faculty member a net added income of $2,848 over next three years for each merit point they have above the college average. That additional $1,431 based salary, compounded over a career’s worth of percentage raises, is not an insignificant difference.

However, there are two serious problems with this analysis:

Problem 1: The phase-in period

If you receive raises based on your one-point-above-average merit score for the next three years, you’ll finish with a salary that is $1,431 higher than if you switched to the average merit score right away. But not everyone will switch right away; the median faculty member will have 1.5 years of raises at their current merit score and 1.5 years of raises at the average merit score. In that case, your salary would be $722 higher than if you’d received the average merit score the whole way through the phase-in period.

That means the expected benefit of continuing merit reviews is a salary that is $709 per merit point higher after three years, and net additional pay of $943 per merit point over next three years. If you’re just a half merit point above average, your salary will be $355 higher after three years, and you will have earned $471 more than if we’d adopted this proposal. Based on the estimates from earlier in this post, that $471 benefit required 12 hours of faculty labor, mostly done by others. Are we comfortable asking our peers to work on our merit reviews for $39/hr given the AAUP average rate of $58/hr? How confident are you that your merit score would be a full point above average?

But that’s not the whole story. It isn’t really possible to do this analysis precisely without raw data. The effect of this proposal is distorted by the movement in the average merit score over the next three years, and by the immediate upward adjustment of merit scores that fall below the college average. The exact effect depends on how merit scores are skewed relative to the average, and how they are distributed over the three-year review cycle. The total number of merit points in effect could increase or decrease over the trial period. Be skeptical of any analysis (including this one) that doesn’t look at the actual distribution of merit scores and their concentration in any particular merit review year.

Even with that caveat, I think it is safe to conclude that the financial implications of this proposal have been dramatically overstated, even if we ignore the faculty whose merit scores are below the average. But we shouldn’t ignore those faculty in our analysis.

Problem 2: We do not all have above-average scores

The argument against this proposal has focused on the cost to faculty with above-average merit scores, but not all faculty receive above-average merit scores. Faculty with below-average merit scores earn less under our current system of reviews, and they will benefit from this new policy.

For the reasons I’ve laid out above, I do not believe our current system of merit reviews accurately assesses faculty merit. The original proposal from executive council makes this point quite well:

In 2022-23, Executive Council began soliciting faculty feedback on our current faculty salary process. Our review of such feedback revealed that our current process is problematic in several ways:

  1. Overwhelmingly, faculty find it demoralizing rather than motivating.
  2. The evaluations, especially of Teaching, are subjective.
  3. The process feeds an unhealthy climate of individualism and overdoing among faculty rather than encouraging investment in post-tenure faculty growth, creativity, and community building.
  4. The process misses the complexities and diversity of faculty labor post tenure.

Should we continue a demoralizing system of evaluations that hinges on subjective evaluations, promotes individualism, and ignores the diversity of faculty labor after tenure? I certainly think it is worth exploring other options, and that is why I will be voting in favor of the proposal at the May 6th faculty meeting. I hope you will consider doing the same.

If you found this post helpful please consider sharing it with colleagues. I am happy to hear comments and feedback as well.