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Updated 2:00 PM January 13, 2004
 

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Faculty perspective
Administrative accountability

The excellence of U-M is a source of pride for all of us, and the main reason that many students and faculty choose to come here. This excellence is maintained in large part by regular evaluations of students and faculty. Students are evaluated through their writings, homework, class participation, quizzes and examinations. Faculty members also are evaluated regularly through anonymous student course evaluations, annual merit reviews with their department chairs, and promotion and tenure reviews. These evaluations also are linked to consequences, such as passing a course, receiving a degree, renewal of an appointment, and awarding of tenure and promotions. Evaluation is the cornerstone of an excellent university.

Surprisingly, U-M has no routine process (beyond soliciting letters from faculty at reappointment time) for independent review of its top administrators, including the president, provost, deans and department chairs. Is an independent evaluation of academic administrators needed? Clearly, reviews could provide feedback and improve the performance of administrators, just as they do for students and faculty. But there is an even more compelling reason for such evaluations: administrators wield considerable power, which easily can be abused. Much of the time, our system works well and power is not abused. However, concern over abuse of power is not hypothetical. The popular press regularly reports on abuse of power in corporate and even religious organizations. Unfortunately, at U-M we also see administrative abuse and misconduct, such as arbitrary denial of leaves, lack of due process, and misreporting of data. Evaluations of administrators, with appropriate consequences, can help address such administrative problems and promote a healthy climate, which rewards integrity and excellence.

One clear and objective indication that administrative problems indeed exist is the low scores recorded repeatedly by the Senate Assembly's faculty-run deans' evaluations, which were conducted by anonymous means similar to student course evaluations. These surveys, plus many letters and comments from concerned faculty, historically have been ignored by the administration. Since the evaluations often reflect problems widely recognized by faculty and staff, the lack of action demoralizes the responders and leads to a poor professional climate. Many excellent faculty react by seeking positions elsewhere. These problems can make it difficult to attract and retain chairs, program directors and associate deans. Some individuals decline reappointment, resign their administrative posts or leave U-M altogether. When asked to serve in these positions, some capable and honorable faculty members decline the opportunity. These problems are recognized by U-M's external constituents (e.g. colleagues at other schools or stakeholders in industry and government) and hurt our reputation.

The most egregious abuse, or problems of illegal behavior, can be addressed through grievances and lawsuits, and some are ongoing. However, the deck is stacked to favor the University administrators and their lawyers from the General Counsel's Office. No one should expect the General Counsel's Office to objectively pursue or express truth about matters of disagreement. Their self-described duty is to "provide legal counsel to the University of Michigan" (see http://www.umich.edu/~vpgc ); they represent U-M administration. Who then represents the students and faculty with grievances against the administration? There is no help for them, unless they spend significant time and energy plus tens of thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer, who then is pitted against U-M legal staff and their extensive financial resources. These lawsuits typically are settled out of court as the patience, energy and resources of the plaintiffs are depleted. The settlements can include gag orders to hide the truth and to dodge oversight that public scrutiny might invite.

I currently am on scholarly leave and serve as the director of the Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Washington, D.C., for a period of two years. Something I see in my current position at NSF is that attention is paid to administrative accountability. Like U-M, they have a general counsel's office, which basically provides legal advice to administrators and represents them. However, NSF also has an independent Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the job of which is to ensure administrative integrity (e.g. see http://www.oig.nsf.gov/ ). The OIG provides independent and objective investigation of any allegations of administrative improprieties. Such a system of checks and balances works well, and contrasts starkly with U-M's absence of any such system to protect the rights and interests of its faculty. The OIG has the legal authority, knowledge, resources and access needed to carry out their responsibilities. Despite the word veritas in the U-M seal, we at U-M currently have no such mechanism to arrive at the truth.

About two years ago the U-M administration was approached by a group of faculty about independent review of administrators. These faculty initially were discouraged from further voicing concerns. However, when Mary Sue Coleman came to U-M as its new president, it was announced that routine reviews of schools and colleges would be established, and that the first group would be reviewed during the 2002-03 academic year. It recently has been announced that the first such review now will be conducted during winter term 2004. However, it is not yet fully clear how these reviews will be conducted or whether they will contribute to administrative accountability.

There is a real and urgent need for routine and independent reviews of all U-M administrators—reviews that include anonymous evaluations by faculty in each unit and that have consequences. So-called "360 degree feedback" annual reviews now are well established in industry. These involve a process during which the person under evaluation does a self-assessment based on a set of criteria. Then the person's manager evaluates him or her, as do peers and direct reports. This is a process that needs to be thoughtfully considered within universities. In my own experience, as a former chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME), I have found anonymous evaluations by faculty and staff to be a very valuable tool for improvement. The previous ME chair and I were able to take actions, based on a 1995 survey, which directly led to substantive improvements in a subsequent 2001 survey. Thus, I am convinced that by establishing fair and objective procedures for merit review and accountability of administrators, and independent means of oversight, we can extend U-M's reputation for academic excellence to the arena of academic administration.

President Coleman has declared: "Integrity is Michigan's top priority" (University Record, Nov. 11, 2002). I hope that she will work with the Senate Assembly to follow through with an exemplary system of independent and objective reviews of U-M administrators. I also hope that she will consider the establishment of an office similar to the OIG. However, it ultimately is the faculty's responsibility to demand administrative accountability and merit reviews for administrators. In the end we will get the administration that we deserve; if we aspire to be "the leaders and best," we do indeed deserve the very best leaders.

The Faculty Perspectives Page is an outlet for faculty expression provided by the Senate Assembly. The opinions expressed in Faculty Perspectives are the views of individual faculty members and do not represent the official position of the University of Michigan nor the faculty governance system. Prospective contributors are invited to contact the Faculty Perspectives Page Committee at faculty.perspectives.page@umich.edu Submissions are accepted in electronic form and are subject to review by the committee. Essay lengths are restricted to one full printed page in The University Record, or about 1,500 words.

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