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March 19, 1998

Faculty, administrators clash over proposed dental evaluation plan

Professors and administrators are baring their teeth at each other over a proposed system for rating the job performances of oral biology faculty.

The system would award point values for the time faculty spend giving classroom lectures, the number of research grants they obtain, research papers they publish, and their service on school committees and editorial boards, among other activities.

At this month's meetings of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, several professors said the system would set arbitrary and unrealistic goals, that administrators could manipulate it to undermine the careers of faculty members they disliked, and that the plan fails to consider time that professors spend mentoring students and helping them with their studies between classes.

But Richard Bennett, interim chief of the oral biology division, told the University Times that the system "looks fair to me" and that department chairpersons within his division agree — although he said the system still is in draft form and that he welcomes faculty input.

"Times are changing. We're in an environment where we have to examine folks for their productivity," Bennett said.

Thomas Detre, senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, told Senate Council March 16 that Health Sciences units have been asked to develop performance rating systems. Faculty and administrators will define productivity standards for their own units, he said.

Bennett gave oral division faculty copies of the proposed evaluation system at a March 10 meeting of division faculty.

John Baker, an associate professor in the division, said he distributed copies of the proposal at a Faculty Assembly meeting later that day because he believes the system would be unfair, and that similar systems could spread to other schools.

"I'm not opposed to a quantitative performance evaluation system per se," he told his fellow Assembly members. "But this one is disturbing because it's unrealistic." To earn a minimum satisfactory performance rating under the system, a faculty member who teaches and does unfunded research would need to lecture for 150 hours a year and either be the primary author of at least three papers or the secondary author of seven or eight, Baker said. "That's totally unrealistic. If you spend half of your time teaching and you publish one major paper a year, you're doing good," he said.

A faculty member with research duties only would have to publish six papers annually as primary author, or 15 papers as a secondary author. Or, such faculty members would have to earn 40 percent of their salaries from outside grants and publish two papers a year as primary author or five per year as secondary author.

Faculty with teaching duties only would need to do 300 lecture hours a year, or serve as course director for 10 course credits in addition to lecturing for 200 hours per year.

"That's a lot of teaching," Baker said.

Because department chairpersons tend to control who's assigned as course directors and as members of department committees (duties for which faculty would earn rating points), they could use the system to discriminate against certain faculty members, Baker added.

Nicholas Bircher, an associate professor in the medical school's anesthesia department, told Faculty Assembly that his unit has maintained a point-based performance evaluation system for years — but with a major difference.

"In our system, you're compared with your colleagues," Bircher said. "The maximum number of points you can earn is based on the highest-achieving faculty member, the lowest number of points on the lowest-achieving person. It's based on the actual performance of people in your department, whereas this [proposed oral biology] system would establish an arbitrary set of limits that could be used not only for promotion or salary increases but also for summary dismissal." Leonard Plotnicov, of anthropology, said: "There is so much to being a faculty member that cannot be quantified to accurately reflect the work and worth of the person — writing letters of recommendation, for example. These are things traditionally expected of a faculty member, things which continue to be important but which cannot be reflected by these decimal dots." After the Assembly meeting, dental professor Thomas Zullo said he found it ironic that Pitt's administration is encouraging faculty to serve as mentors to minority students, yet oral biology's system would discourage faculty from such work by failing to reward it.

Interim division chief Bennett said he hopes to implement a faculty rating system by next fall. Neither Bennett nor Beverly Harris-Schenz, vice provost for Faculty Affairs, was sure whether the proposal would need approval above the level of the School of Dental Medicine dean's office. Provost James Maher was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Bennett emphasized that the system could be amended based on faculty feedback. "That's why I distributed the proposal to our faculty," he said. "We want their input, and hopefully that input will come at division and departmental meetings. If folks like Baker and others use the news media to express their opinions, that's an inappropriate format." On March 11, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story based on Faculty Assembly's discussion of the proposed system.

Told that some professors see the proposal as unfair, Bennett replied: "I'm sorry they feel that way. But as Abraham Lincoln said, you can please some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time." Senior Vice Chancellor Detre told Senate Council that increasing competition for federal research funds is forcing academic units to demand more productivity from faculty.

"It used to be that in schools such as dental medicine and medicine, people could spend considerable time thinking about research but not having research funded. That, of course, is no longer an option for clinicians. For University clinical faculty, job productivity now has to resemble the productivity of practitioners in the outside world — except, of course, a percentage of their time should be devoted to teaching, either at the bedside or formal teaching through lectures and seminars," Detre said.

"This is a difficult issue, I readily admit," he added. "But I think it [an evaluation system] takes the arbitrariness out of the process, once it is agreed what should be the criteria for faculty productivity." Oral biology, one of four divisions in dental medicine, includes four departments: oral medicine and pathology, anatomy/histology, microbiology/biochemistry, and pharmacology/physiology.

— Bruce Steele

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