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IN MY OPINION

Academic underperformers must be called out

Why should stretched public dollars go to undeserved six-figure salaries for people who do not do their jobs?

By GERALD WALTON | JAN 09 2017

Allow me to stick my neck out. For many years, I have observed many hard-working, full-time, tenured professors excel in the three pillars of academic work: teaching, scholarship and service. From what I can tell, their success and capacity are guided by their strong work ethic and, more specifically, a moral obligation to uphold the collective agreement that delineates the rights, responsibilities and privileges of their employment. They understand that this agreement is a two-way street and they strive to fulfill their part of it. Yet, other colleagues chronically underperform, not even coming close to meeting the most basic expectations of work performance and output as set out in their collective agreements.

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.”

Tenure is not implicit permission or freedom to underperform

The key phrase here is “carry on,” which presumes that scholarly productivity is happening in the first place. Tenure is not implicit permission 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, threatening the status of universities as institutions that are accountable to the public.

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 neoliberal 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-reviewed publications.

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.

The lack of productivity from some results in chronic workload inequity

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 deficiencies 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.

Gerald Walton is an associate professor in the faculty of education at Lakehead University.

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  1. Christine Daigle / January 10, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Thank you for this much needed column Dr. Walton. I wholeheartedly agree that this is an important problem that needs to be tackled. Unions are essential but when they defend under performers, they defend unethical behaviour and contribute to perpetuate inequity.

  2. Nicola Koper / January 11, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Great article – I have thought about this many times in the past, but haven’t had the guts to express it aloud. It is about time that someone did.

  3. Misao Dean / January 11, 2017 at 10:51 pm

    In my university we have an aggressive system of biennial evaluation that provides merit increments to faculty members who “outperform” their peers. 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 “under performing” temporarily, in my experience there’s usually a reason.

    • Ahmed Saad / January 17, 2017 at 2:22 pm

      What about those who got adopted to an easy life with little accountability? All institutions have some sort of evaluation for their faculty members but we still see “underperformers”.

      • Misao Dean / June 5, 2017 at 12:59 pm

        I don’t know what things are like at SFU Ahmed, but there’s no “easy life” at this end of the ferry. As far as I can tell everyone here is adapted to a very stressful and difficult life, and one of those adaptations is, once in a while, to break down. Some older members of some departments are sick, sad, and bitter. And if they are, perhaps, publishing less because of that, I can hear that.

  4. Mohammad / January 17, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    Can not agree more

  5. Jason Ellis / January 18, 2017 at 11:53 am

    I agree with the sentiment, Gerald. The devil in the details of assessing un-derperformance in order redress it is the complicated part. The more accountability systems 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 slack job of it because that’s who they are. Not only does this mean more pointless bureaucratic work for the people doing their jobs properly, it also usually means 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, because inevitably it is late, incomplete, poorly done, etc. You could respond by saying, “well let the slackers fail” and then hold them accountable. But that also involves work on the part of those third parties to follow through on the accountability. And meanwhile the people who hold themselves to account just fine as it is, are still filling in their forms.
    The answer to the dilemma instead lies with hiring committees, in my view. 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 holds up their end of the bargain. These people are usually not too hard to spot.

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