Hiring and promotion are key to fulfilling HE mission

While universities have a broad mandate of teaching, research and public service, most do not clearly state to faculty their responsibilities beyond a narrow concept of research productivity and teaching workload. Typically, faculty are told they must publish so many articles in so many internationally recognised journals, teaching so many classes at some level of competency, and in many cases secure an ongoing stream of research grants. That is often it!

In turn, many universities do not explicitly place value on other important university duties and responsibilities in the hiring and promotion process of faculty, such as public service, teaching quality and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students, curricular innovation, university service and their role in professional associations and journals.

This implies a significant misalignment between the broad university mission and goals of universities to promote, for example, broad concepts of economic and social engagement, with the expectations and incentives for faculty performance. Here is one of the most important and largely neglected policies areas where universities need to innovate and apply simple behavioural economics – a missing link if you will.

Causes of misalignment

What are the causes of this misalignment? One is the evolving expectations of governments and other stakeholders. Universities are, or can be, major vehicles for social economic mobility and economic development and sustainability goals. Indeed, if universities, particularly research universities, are not civically engaged, they represent a significant economic disadvantage for a nation or a region.

Governments and ministries, from China to Britain, Germany and India and nations in Africa, all have sought a broader utility of universities as agents of social and economic change. Yet, as noted, most have not integrated these activities into the hiring and advancement process of faculty – not necessarily for all faculty, but as a clear criterion to encourage and incentivise.

One major reason for the missing link is the excessive value that ministries and university leaders have placed on global rankings and the ranking dependent concept of ‘World-Class Universities’.

Governments and their ministries of education are thus sending mixed messages. They demand and provide financial incentives for universities to improve their ranking that are largely based on citation indexes linked to international journals and a few other proxies for research productivity and prestige – like Nobel Prizes.

Rankings and the rhetoric around World-Class Universities are here to stay. They provide an important benchmark perspective on universities’ research productivity. But what about teaching and learning? What about academic research that focuses on local and regional needs? Or the larger public service role of universities in working with local hospitals, schools and city governments?

Many universities have, logically, focused faculty hiring and promotion on improving their production of international journal articles. Many provide financial incentives, including significant boosts in salary.

In some countries, government ministries identify what journals can be counted in faculty promotion. Some fail to hire promising faculty who focus on local policy issues or work in fields of engineering not deemed attractive for international journals. One result: the focus and type of research activity is being subverted for ranking purposes.

In an important shift in ministerial policies, China's government recently announced criteria for hiring and promotion that reduce the “excessive reliance” on Science Citation Index papers and notes the need for universities to also value research that more directly benefits local and regional communities. This is welcomed news and an indicator of a re-evaluation of the crass desire for ranking superiority. Yet there still needs to be a larger, more holistic approach to promoting and evaluating the work of Chinese academics.

One values only what one can measure, right? Then again, some activities are hard to measure, even with elaborate models as proxies. Should universities devalue what ministries and rankings cannot measure well?

Our argument is that rankings and the pressure from ministries which mandate getting more universities in the top 100 or better need to be counterbalanced with the effort to seek excellence in all university endeavours; ergo, this returns us to the concept that universities need to place value on a broader range of faculty responsibilities and performance and to do so operationally, not just rhetorically.

Furthermore, we would argue that universities need to have more direct control over the process, and not simply carry out the desires of ministerial edicts. This then provides greater authority for universities to establish criteria that match their role in society and their strengths, with the activities of their most important asset: talented faculty.

Seeking alignment

How might universities incorporate a more broad, qualitative set of criteria into the faculty hiring and promotion process that aligns with their mission? More specifically, how can they incentivise faculty behaviour to, where appropriate, incorporate civic engagement? As argued in the book The New Flagship University, a partial answer is that ministries and university administrators should stop imposing ranking-focused restrictions and expectations on faculty hiring and promotion.

Instead, universities need to develop policies and practices that give greater clarity about the role and expectation of faculty. Our presumption is that any valid effort requires a process based on pre- and post-tenure peer review – and not a civil service structure in which faculty advancement is largely a factor of seniority.

It also requires a process that recognises the considerable variation in the research interests of faculty among and within disciplines, and over time, and that provides a nuanced understanding and validation of research activity, including the concept of engaged scholarship.

Hiring and promotion also need to focus on a record and promise of creativity and innovation – not simply quantity. And finally, shaping faculty behaviour requires a significant institutional effort and a culture of self-improvement among academics.

So how should we evaluate faculty performance and promise? Within a research university, faculty activity can be conceptualised in eight areas: teaching, mentoring, research, academic entrepreneurship, professional competence, professional activity, university service and public service. Theoretically, the weighting will vary depending on faculty members’ interests, abilities and the stage in their academic careers.

Teaching – Clearly demonstrated evidence of high quality in teaching is an essential criterion for appointment, advancement or promotion that includes documentation of ability and diligence in the teaching role, including the command of the subject; continuous growth in the subject field; ability to organise material and to present it with force and logic; capacity to awaken in students an awareness of the relationship of the subject to other fields of knowledge; and fostering of student independence and capability to reason.

Mentoring and inclusion – This should be focused on the extent and skill of the candidate’s participation in the general guidance, mentoring and advising of students; effectiveness in creating an academic environment that is open and encouraging to all students, including development of particularly effective strategies for the educational advancement of students in various underrepresented groups.

Research and creative work – Evidence of a productive and creative mind should be sought in the candidate’s published research or recognised artistic production in original architectural or engineering design, or the like.

Research can take four forms: discovery with no immediate application; integration focused on the synthesis of information across disciplines and topics; engaged scholarship characterised by the application of disciplinary expertise and methodologies that inform public issues, including community, social, cultural and economic development; and teaching and learning that includes the systematic study of learning that is applicable to real life situations. Publications in research and other creative accomplishments should be evaluated, not merely enumerated.

Academic entrepreneurship – This can include activity, including research and expertise, that leads to new technological innovation and income-oriented activity and that may lead to start-ups and new business generated by said technological development. It may also include developing paths for the interchange of academic talent, including faculty and students, with private sector firms and more generally to regional economic activity.

Professional competence – In certain positions in the professional schools and colleges, such as architecture, business administration, dentistry, engineering, law, medicine, etc, a demonstrated distinction in the special competencies appropriate to the field and its characteristic activities should be recognised as a criterion for appointment or promotion.

Professional activity and networking – The candidate’s professional activities should be scrutinised for evidence of achievement and leadership in the field and networking domestically and possibly internationally. This can include demonstrated development or utilisation of new approaches and techniques for the solution of professional problems and the establishment or participation in international networks of students and researchers. In the modern world, universities are institutions that promote both national development and global integration. These are co-dependent pursuits, particularly for research universities.

University service – The faculty plays an important role in the administration of the university and in the formulation of its policies. Recognition should therefore be given to scholars who participate effectively and imaginatively in faculty government and the formulation of departmental, college and university policies, who prove themselves to be able administrators and who contribute to student welfare.

Public service – Services by members of the faculty to the community, state and nation, both in their special capacities as scholars and in areas beyond those special capacities when the work done is at a sufficiently high level and of sufficiently high quality, should likewise be recognised as evidence for promotion.

Proper weight and incentives

Whatever approach is taken by a university, and particularly a research-intensive university, the weight of hiring and promotion tends to lean heavily on research productivity and promise. That is the reality of the modern university. But by providing a more significant statement of the job of faculty, and an understanding that their activities may vary by discipline, age and the needs of a nation or region, one creates a set of expectations that can provide a meaningful incentive in crucial areas of university activity and productivity.

For example, there are specific and urgent needs for forms of teaching, research and public service in specific countries that should be recognised in the academic promotion process: in Africa, where academic promotion has long depended largely on a lecturer’s length of service and number of research publications, there is a need for curricular innovation that promotes democracy and ‘engaged scholarship’ that can advance local economic development.

The critical factor is an alignment of a university’s mission and societal expectations with the faculty job descriptions and, finally, the actual process of hiring and promotion. Without recognition of productivity in areas important to a university’s goals, besides a narrow band of research activity, most faculty will behave accordingly. Without serious attention to this missing link, universities will have a difficult time meeting their potential and usefulness for society.

This article is part of a UWN ‘Missing Link’ series and is based in part on the book, The New Flagship University: Changing the paradigm from global ranking to national relevance (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). John Aubrey Douglass is senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States. Ellen Switkes is the former assistant vice president of academic advancement at the University of California Office of the President and currently co-organiser of CSHE’s Berkeley Institutes on Higher Education.