Academic underperformers must be called out

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As published in University Affairs, January 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.”

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.

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.