Monday, May 24, 2010

Bargaining Update: In Pursuit of a Transparent and Consistent Review Process


LEO President Bonnie Halloran (second from right) and members talk after her remarks to the UM Regents at Dearborn on May 20, 2010. (Photo by Beth Hay) The next bargaining session is scheduled for Thursday, June 3, at the School of Social Work, Ann Arbor.

From the May 2010 issue of LEO Matters

May 20, 2010

by Stevens Wandmacher

One of the most important parts of the current UM-LEO contract is Article XIX—Performance Evaluation. This article establishes the requirements for and nature of our annual reports, interim evaluations, and major reviews. In laying out the major review process, the article calls for “Employees to provide evidence of high quality instruction that fosters students’ intellectual development.” On the surface this sounds great: who wouldn’t find this expectation for what we should be doing and how well we should be doing it reasonable?

But if we scratch beneath the surface, ambiguities emerge. What type of evidence is needed and how is quality measured? The contract doesn’t provide enough clarity on these questions. As it turns out, the criteria that constitute evidence for the evaluation of lecturers’ performance, as well as the benchmarks for level of achievement, are not as well defined as first appears. Furthermore, as recent experience has revealed in the case of Kirsten Herold’s dismissal, the contract
provides no protection against shifting, or even hidden, criteria that can undermine a lecturer’s success in the review process.

The contract does call for the creation of “specific written criteria” by each unit and provides some “general criteria” that the specific criteria used in evaluation could address, such as “command of the subject matter” and “ability to communicate and achieve appropriate student learning goals.” It also speaks to the benchmarks for evaluating teaching quality, here too in only the most general terms: the “[p]rocess and procedure of the evaluation should be consistent with commonly accepted standards within The University of Michigan for evaluating teaching.” Not many units, however, have provided criteria and benchmarks of the sort that can be used by lecturers
to guide them in fulfilling their job requirements or by evaluators to
make fair judgments.

To rectify this problem, in the current negotiations the Bargaining Team has asked for stronger, more precise language regarding evaluation criteria and benchmarks. The Administration clearly is uncomfortable with this request. They tell us that they need a lot of flexibility because it is tricky to establish the criteria for a lecturer’s performance and to measure it. One wonders what is especially “tricky” about this as compared with that for tenure-track faculty members — unless the Administration’s claim belies the value that it places on the teaching quality of tenure- track faculty members. Indeed, the claim gives the LEO Bargaining Team pause, since flexibility can lead to a lack of transparency in the review process, as well as to inconsistency in the application of criteria and benchmarks.

Despite this difference in views, we believe that positive headway
can be made in negotiations. The Bargaining Team is exploring other avenues toward building transparency and consistency. One is that in addition to clear, written communication of criteria and benchmarks to a lecturer, if some criteria are weighted more heavily than others, this differential must also be laid out so that lecturers know where to focus their efforts and what adjustments are needed for them to meet the unit’s expectations. Another avenue is the “no blindsiding” provision. This provision calls for a supervisor to inform a lecturer in a timely fashion when a performance
problem has been identified so that the lecturer has an opportunity to correct the problem.

The principles of transparency and consistency are critical to the concept of fair performance evaluation. As with employees of any organization outside of academia, lecturers should know if their performance is not measuring up—and in time to do something about it. It is unfair not only to a lecturer to conceal evidence of sub par performance but also to the students that would benefit from the improved performance. Transparency and consistency help ensure fair performance evaluation for lecturers and high quality instruction for students.