Bad rubrics, worse than none at all?

Are there some circumstances in which development of pre-tenure faculty evaluation rubrics work to the disadvantage of departments?

I asked this question when we started working on our first round of rubrics a few years back.  After spending time researching and developing rubrics, the answer seems clear.  Bad rubrics can create worse outcomes than having never developed them at all.  If the rubrics are poor, they present real disadvantages to departments looking to set standards, gain external recognition, and garner resources in their institutional environment.

What makes for poor rubrics?

More emphasis on quantity than quality

Rubrics that emphasize the number of research products, without reference to quality can create low thresholds that do not reinforce quality standards.   Simply stating numbers of articles, or getting a book published, without articulating something about the quality of the journals or presses is problematic.   Publication in secondary and tertiary journals, or with quasi-vanity book publishers, produce numbers without quality or impact.   That level of standard would not typically be acceptable in a competitive research university setting.

There is, of course, no one gold standard on quality.   It may be that some departments may stipulate that only first or sole authored articles in one or two top ranked generalist journals count.  Others may employ standards that emphasize first and/or sole authored publications in top generalist or specialty journals that are agreed to by the faculty.   The key being, in these departments, the pre-tenure faculty know the standards going into the process.  They can make informed choices about how their scholarship is likely to fit with the emphasis in the department.

Failure to address trajectory

Aside from questions of quantity and quality, rubrics that fail to set markers along the way can be problematic.  If a department faculty define one simple end-point rubric, you fail to provide the kind of guidance that benefits pre-tenure faculty by giving periodic feedback on trajectory.  The earlier the feedback, the better the opportunity they have to correct trajectory in time to still be successful.  Indeed, one concern often raised by external reviewers is a pattern of publications that suggest a tenure push, low productivity over time with a marked increase just prior to tenure.   These types of patterns are particularly concerning for questions of tenure, the likelihood of productivity being sustained over time.   It is also likely that late tenure pushes are often not characterized by placement of work in top tier journals.  

Scholarly focus and contribution

Rubrics that do not address contribution (e.g., sole authorship, first authored) and scholarly focus of the work can also be problematic.  They fail to reinforce what should be the guidance of informed mentors.  While research collaborations are common, there needs to be a clearly defined and emergent focus of the candidate’s schoarship.   In my years in the academy, I have observed attempts by colleagues to try to ‘save’ tenure cases for friends by bringing them into a variety of projects to build numbers of publications.   In strong departments, these fail, as they tend to be scattered in focus and seldom involve primary roles and scholarly contributions.   While the numbers look OK, the external reviewers are likely to quickly note the issues of focus and contribution. 

Bad rubrics send a message

They send a message to the higher administration in your research university.   They convey that you have not clearly articulated standards for pre-tenure faculty.  Moreover, they can be read as a lack of rigorous scholarship standards in the department.  Poorly defined rubrics increase the risk for failed promotion and tenure cases.   When a department endorses the candidate, but college and/or provost-level reviews do not support the recommendation, the consequences for the department are serious; often representing lack of future investments by the college and university.

Conclusion

In my estimation bad rubrics are worse than none at all. 

But, hopefully, this first series of entries on promotion and tenure have helped make the case that when done well, there are a number of tangible advantages of good faculty evaluation rubrics for pre-tenure faculty and their tenure home departments.

 

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