Monday, June 3, 2013

What is the Merit of Merit?

David Porreca, FAUW President

This post owes its origin to a discussion we had both at the last FAUW Board meeting and a subsequent e-mail conversation among Board members. Essentially, the question boils down to asking whether all of the effort expended on the annual assessment of merit for faculty members provides a net benefit of productivity for all the relevant stakeholders: individual faculty members, our university as an institution, and academia writ large? 

In other words, what purpose does our current scheme of merit evaluations serve?

Just a few years ago, FAUW and the university’s administration undertook a review of the faculty evaluation process, and decided to maintain the broad structure of our current scheme of performance evaluations while encouraging department chairs to use “the full dynamic range” of designations from 0 to 2, in 0.25 increments.  Data regarding the distribution of merit scores is provided in the appendices to the Work-Life Balance Report that was released earlier this year.  Salary increments based on merit are drawn from a different pool of money than the scale increase that FAUW negotiates on its members’ behalf. 

As we all know, this process of annual merit evaluations involves a substantial amount of effort from faculty members filling in forms and templates every January.  As anyone who has been department chair or who has contributed to a departmental evaluation committee knows all too well, those templates and CVs are only the beginning.  An unquantified number of very expensive hours gets invested annually in the evaluating, assessing, comparing and ranking of these materials once submitted, and the resulting evaluation rankings get yet another round of assessment and vetting at the various Deans’ offices across campus. 

As one might expect under circumstances where professionals are judged against each other, considerations of fairness on the one hand, and of inevitable professional jealousy on the other, create fertile ground for the questioning of the resulting evaluations.  A member must determine whether s/he has the wherewithal to challenge the chair’s decision, perhaps as far as an appeal to the Dean, and such an appeal would involve an investment of working hours for all concerned, faculty, academic administrators and staff. 

In addition to these resource-consuming mechanisms mandated by policy and the Memorandum of Agreement, there is also the human angle of productivity loss due to the mental anguish that fretting over this forest of procedures causes.

Considering all of the above, does the net difference between an evaluation score of 1.5 vs. 1.75 on a professor’s salary justify the investment of human capital into all the mechanisms described above?  In a nutshell, it would seem that never has so much time been invested for the sake of so small a net difference. 


If one compounds that difference over a professor’s whole career, the differences do add up.  Annual performance evaluations are essential for a university with high aspirations.
They serve the role of both carrot and stick.

In principle, they reward those faculty members who, by virtue of having more talent or working harder, accomplish more as teachers, researchers and administrative colleagues. These people expect and deserve better raises in recognition of their accomplishments.

At the same time, evaluations serve as a reminder to the lazier side of our nature that we
should be making strong contributions as researchers, teachers and administrative colleagues.  Despite what we like to believe about ourselves, we are not solely driven from within to be good professors. We need help from knowing that some sort of annual accounting has to be provided.

No system of performance evaluation can be perfect.  Given our human nature, a perfect system for doing such business is not possible.  All that an institution can do is try its best, and continue to seek improvements towards fair outcomes.  But "fair" is a tough target to hit in this endeavor, and there is no getting around it. 


  1. My question is who evaluations administrators at UW? According to the latest Senate minutes, admin staff to faculty ration is 2:1 (that is 2 admin people for every faculty person). How is this acceptable? How is this not a headline? Starting on page 69:

    1. There's about two staff per faculty member but most staff are not administrators. There's a lot of work in handling finances, student records, building and grounds maintenance, libraries, information systems, laboratories, etc.

  2. This is a typical evasive admin non answer but does not respond to the question: who evaluates administrators? Who do you complain to when they fail at their jobs? The university is currently about administration and not about teaching or research so there is no where to go.

    Where's the break down? And, as an insider, I know that the people there who are supposed to handle finances do not and no one knows who has authority because there are so many administrators and it takes days and weeks to get any paperwork handled. It's a mess. Why are UofT's numbers 2 faculty for every staff? Why do other university's complain about 53% more staff than faculty?
    Why did the number jumps SO MUCH of staff in the last 4 years but not faculty or students? Where are the numbers for the past 20 years? Why is it so hard to get the facts? This is why:

  3. Actually, it was an evasive FAUW Past President non-answer since that was me replying above (and being too lazy to sign in).

    From my experience at senate, board of governors, faculty-relations committee, and over the years of being a student and faculty member here, I'd have to say Waterloo is mostly about teaching and research. Yes there are lots of debates about what these are or should be and there are lots of frustrations (in staff, including administrators, as well as faculty). All staff report to someone and are evaluated yearly just like faculty.

    The upper-level reporting structure is maintained on the web at Also, FAUW can help with specific difficulties or with finding the right person to engage.

    The University of Toronto, due to its large law and medical schools, has a lot of faculty who are not employees of the university and who are supported by staff who are not employees of the university. If I look at the 2012 equity report from University of Toronto, it shows 3041 faculty employed by the university and 6158 staff employed by the university, roughly what you'd expect since Toronto is roughly three times the size of Waterloo. They like to report the number of faculty as 11581 but that is everyone with faculty-level credentials who is active in teaching or research at the university. That's the best I can do without more serious research in the Toronto website or through some organization like OCUFA, CAUT, COU, AUCC, or HEQCO which gather statistics.

    Universities also vary in what they do. Waterloo has a large base of science/engineering and therefore a large contingent of lab staff. Waterloo has a huge cooperative education program (staffed). Waterloo is a research-intensive university, meaning more research-related and finance-related staff and generally more support for faculty to free up the time to do the research.

  4. Ok: I will ask again: Where do you complain when the admin doesn't do their job? WHO are the people who I can complain to because I have a specific list of people who have been extremely rude and difficult and unhelpful? Why is it so hard to FIND this list?
    Why do they punish profs for going to conferences and sending students out on one hand and then have plans about international progress? There is a large group of really angry profs who have given up and take part in nothing because there is no support and the rhetoric is empty.
    UWO is one of the FEW university's in Ontario who still forces federally funded profs to fill out and process huge forms for travel even though the money is not under provincial power. All other powerful Ontario faculty have rejected the HUNDREDS OF HOURS extra work this ads to faculty and students obtaining, processing and submitting and having rejected for nonsense this paperwork. How much money is spent hiring people who do this?
    As someone who is at Waterloo and trying to do research and teach and having all my time eaten up with paperwork I disagree that it is about progress.

    I will always email FAUW now when I am trying to find the right person to sign, accept, process, deal with paperwork. It is literally impossible to get an answer in one or even 10 emails. No one answers clearly or succinctly. I have literally never, in my long career experienced this. I have had experience in Europe and other Canadian places and Waterloo is, if you publish a lot, get invited to a lot of conferences, an impossible place. They punish you if you do with paperwork and, despite the international rhetoric, make bringing students and guests in from abroad nearly impossible. All my guests have left feeling completely annoyed and/or alienated. I think there is a tremendous disconnect between the profs who are very academically active and the profs who are admin who do not. The future is bleak at Waterloo if this is not addressed.
    Saying that Waterloo is research-intensive sounds impossible to believe because the teaching load is higher than any other place I have been. The research support is horrible, confused and the worst I've experienced. It is no wonder it has dropped in ratings. I think that the FAUW needs to actually talk to Engineering and science people because we disagree with everything you just said.