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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
printfriendlyVolume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004

Conflict in Higher Education
Faculty Evaluation

"We should look long and carefully at ourselves before we pass judgment on others." So said Moliere in The Misanthrope and so think many faculty members and administrators in institutions of higher education. Much of the reluctance surrounding faculty evaluation arises because of its two conflicting purposes: evidence upon which to base personnel decisions, and information upon which to improve teaching performance. The summative and formative natures of this one activity lead to confusion and apprehension. Although Centra (1979) argued that the "two purposes ... need not be mutually exclusive, [but] should, in fact, go hand in hand" (p. 1), other researchers pointed clearly to the difficulties that arise when the two purposes are joined (Mill & Hyle, 1999; Ory, 1999). Yet, even the researchers who acknowledge these difficulties are hard pressed to describe an alternate solution to the dilemma.

One way of understanding the tension between the conflicting purposes of faculty evaluation, that of performance and that of development, is to consider it in the context of organization theory. Initially, the conflict arises because higher educational organizations and the individuals who work in them want to inhabit an idealized environment, where appropriate, just decisions are made about promotion and tenure, and where faculty members continually strive to improve their teaching. In the context of organization theory, such desires follow the rational model that describes an ideal organization. Many of the elements of Weber's rational-legal bureaucracy surface in idealized descriptions of faculty evaluation and its place within the academy. Along with the rational model, the literature concerning faculty evaluation also reveals aspects of classical management theory (Miller, 1974).

However, as Perrow (1986) noted, the idealized rational model is incompatible with the real world of organizations. Therefore, other aspects of organization theory apply in understanding and explaining systems of faculty evaluation and the dilemmas they create. One fruitful theory views organizations as cultures. By understanding the cultures connected with an organization, its members can better understand the conflicts that occur. By examining the various levels of organizational culture as they relate to faculty evaluation, administrators and faculty can achieve a better understanding of the purposes of evaluation and the best means to use when undertaking it.


As Seldin (1980) noted in Successful Faculty Evaluation Programs, informal means of evaluating faculty have always existed. What is relatively recent, however, is the desire to formalize the evaluation methods and to use evaluation for multiple ends. The formalization, in theoretical terms, exists in the bureaucracy of evaluation that most universities have established. Perrow (1986), in Complex Organizations, delineated the aspects of a bureaucracy as first described by Max Weber, a nineteenth century German sociologist. Weber listed these key elements of the rational-legal bureaucracy:

1. Equal treatment for all employees.

2. Reliance on expertise, skills, and experience relevant to the position.

3. No extraorganizational prerogatives of position... The employee cannot use [the organization] for personal ends.

4. Specific standards of work and output.

5. Extensive record keeping dealing with the work and output.

6. Establishment and enforcement of rules that serve the interests of the organization.

7. Recognition that rules and regulations bind managers as well as employees; thus employees can hold management to the terms of the employment contract. (p. 3)

Much of organization theory responds in some way to Weber's depiction of this rational model of organizations. Subsequent theorists used the rational model as a touchstone, revising it or reacting to it in their attempts to devise theories that explain the workings of people within organizations and the organizations themselves.

Reliance on the rational model predominates in the literature concerning faculty evaluation, underscoring the desire for those who evaluate to operate in a rational world. Rifkin (1995) found in a literature review that both faculty and administration held views concerning the "ideal methods and purposes of faculty evaluation." Miller (1974) insisted that the accountability that comes from evaluation "means relating objectives sought to ends achieved" (p. 3), while Seldin (1986) emphasized that faculty evaluation can "provide a rational, equitable basis for crucial administrative decisions on tenure, promotion in rank, and retention" (p. 5). Even Menges (2000), in an article critical of the positivistic, rational approach to teaching research, suggested a line of inquiry into the practice of teaching that is based on the rational model. He proposed research that would investigate why faculty did not incorporate proven and successful teaching methods into their classrooms. This question implies a logical, rational approach to teaching that identifies and implements the most productive behavior to achieve the desired ends. Such language supports a rational-legal bureaucracy where decisions are made by management for rational reasons supported by the legal framework of the organization (Perrow, 1986).

Another early organization theory, classical management, also appears in the faculty evaluation literature. Perrow (1986) noted that classical management theory, based on several European sources, developed in the United States in the early 20th century before Weber's views were translated and widely circulated. Classical management theory applies maxims or what Perrow (1986) called proverbs to management. Contemporary theorists have little time for this approach, yet Perrow (1986) argued that the maxims, though simple, are usually quite applicable and current theorists have not found suitable replacements. In the right context, such maxims prove effective and productive.

Miller's (1974) Developing Programs for Faculty Evaluation presents an exemplar of these maxims. In Chapter One, after quoting John Masefield's poem, "There are Few Earthly Things More Beautiful than a University," Miller listed these suggestions: "Process is more important than product...; willingness to change is inversely proportional to proximity...; expect opposition...; know your faculty...; keep strategy flexible and low-key" (pp. 10-14). One can see why contemporary scholars might ridicule such an approach as naïve and simplistic, yet managers often overlook simple approaches in favor of more complex ones with ineffectual results.

Formative v. Summative Purposes

The rational model of organizations and classical management theory provide a straightforward view of faculty evaluation; however, neither model fully accounts for the conflict that arises in all faculty evaluation systems. The crux of the conflict comes from the dual purpose of faculty evaluation. On the one hand, faculty evaluation promotes, encourages, and supports faculty development; as such, it constitutes formative evaluation. On the other hand, faculty evaluation yields information upon which decisions regarding promotion, rank, and tenure are made; in this form, it involves summative evaluation (Centra, 1993; Mills & Hyle, 1999; Ory, 1991; Rifkin, 1995; Seldin, 1980).

The conflict has been growing as faculty evaluations have developed over the past forty years. Ory (1991) described the evolution of faculty evaluation in terms of changing purposes and methods. Early evaluation was based on "informal assessment" by the chair or dean (Ory, 1991, p. 30). However, in the 1960s, students initiated faculty evaluations because they wanted accountability from the faculty and a way to inform fellow students about faculty's teaching expertise. In the 1970s faculty began to take control over evaluation procedures to enhance faculty development. In the 1980s, administrators saw the potential for evaluation as a means to address issues of accountability, both internally and externally. In this decade the public increasingly called for accountability in higher education, and universities experienced lawsuits brought by professors who had been denied tenure (Ory, 1991).

Foremost among the explanations for the conflict is perception. Reviewing many studies, Rifkin (1995) found that faculty perceived discrepancies between the ideal purpose of evaluation, as stated by the administration, and its practical application. In fact, these perceptions "of how the results are used interfere with the overall success of evaluation systems that attempt to incorporate both [formative and summative] purposes." These misperceptions often result from the competing nature of the two purposes, according to Mills and Hyle (1999):

When these approaches are combined in one review, faculty members must choose between providing honest, reflective self-criticism or minimizing weaknesses while emphasizing (even exaggerating) their contributions when reviewing their performance with their chair, who is expected to use information from the review to justify a summative decision reported to higher levels in the institution. (p. 353)

Despite the conflict and some literature that supported separating the two purposes of evaluation (Keig & Waggoner, 1994), much of the literature endorsed the combination of purposes and called for reform rather than revolution.

Many of the "how-to" guides addressed the issue from the dual-purpose perspective (Centra, 1979; Centra, 1993; Miller, 1974; Seldin, 1980; Seldin, 1984). Mills and Hyle (1999) in their study of faculty evaluation practices from the faculty's perspective found that faculty wants to keep the dual system, but wants it improved. Both Rifkin (1995) and Ory (1991) advised improvements and reforms, including multiple methods of evaluating such as chair and dean evaluation, student evaluation, classroom visits, peer review, syllabi and assignment evaluation, teaching portfolios, research and publication record, and service opportunities (Aubrecht, 1984; Keig & Waggoner, 1994; Johnson & Ryan, 2000; Murray, 1995; Ory, 1991; Seldin, 1984). However, these methods will only be effective if they are appropriate to the context, or culture, of the university.

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