[This memorandum, written to the Ad Hoc Faculty Evaluation Committee in the college of business at Wichita State University, is included for the critique it contains of the abuse of quantification that Murphey found so prevalent in his years in academia.]

 

To: Ad Hoc Faculty Evaluation Committee

 

Date: April 26, 1985

 

Subject: Questionnaire

 

            I have struggled at length in my effort to fill out the Faculty Evaluation Questionnaire that you have sent the faculty, since I would like to contribute to the process that is now going on relative to evaluation.

            The more I struggle with it, however, the more I am convinced that the Questionnaire is impossible to fill out meaningfully.  It is seeking to quantify factors that are not quantifiable.  If we consider question #1, for example, we find that several of the items that it lists actually constitute sine qua nons of effective teaching.  Suppose that I decide that “instructor’s rapport” is worth 10% relative to the other factors.  That would be seriously misleading, since an instructor who has no rapport with the students is far worse than a mere ten percent reduction would indicate.  The same is true for each of the other factors.  What we are dealing with is a series of elements that are all indispensable.  They cannot be given weights totaling 100%.  An analogy would be to the ingredients of a cake.  If we were to evaluate the flour as worth 40%, the eggs 25%, the sugar 10%, etc., the evaluation superficially might seem to make sense.  But in fact a cake without flour would not be a cake at all, not 60% of one.

            With regard to question #2, for example, how is it possible to say that published articles of a certain type are to be awarded a certain percentage and books yet another percentage?  It can easily be the case that a faculty member can satisfy the research criterion overwhelmingly by publishing just refereed articles, with no books at all—or vice versa.  If we were to assign a percentage to each of the types of publishing, work in one area of publishing would still leave the faculty member short of 100%.  Percentages simply have no appropriate application to such subject-matter.

            This is not to say that there are not some matters to which quantification can validly be applied.  If a class of thirty students, say, all respond to a question about whether the professor communicates well, a composite number, showing the mean, will give some insight into how the students have perceived him.  Even here, however, the numbers must be read with some understanding, since three or four students giving quite low ratings can skew the average downward despite all the rest of the class’s giving high ratings.  An appropriate system of evaluation will not pressure a faculty member to try to “please all of the people all of the time.”  The uncritical acceptance of average ratings would do that.  The harmful effect upon teaching is apparent. 

            I have sought the opinions of several members of the college faculty about this and have found that they have all concurred in it.  We all share with you the desire to develop the best possible evaluative tools—to which end I hope this memorandum is helpful.

 

[This memorandum had no apparent effect.  The Questionnaire containing the defects noted in the memorandum was used for several years.]

 

Excerpt from a letter to a faculty friend dated March 13, 1997, relating to a proposal for the university to institute a system of evaluating faculty according to "management by objectives."

 

            I have just read your very fine paper on "Faculty Evaluation and Management by Objectives"...

           You're doing a real service with such an essay.  Let's hope that somebody on the Regents will be induced to take the points seriously.  Once these management fads start, such as "management by objectives," they seem to exercise an uncanny grip over a great many "practical" types, who seem unable to look at them critically.

            ... I was struck by the seeming mediocrity of the faculty members you describe.  Unfortunately, it may be true that large numbers will trim their intellectual sails to meet the limiting demands of the new evaluation system; and you are right to trace the consequences of that.  Hopefully, however, there will be others who have more spine.  These people will continue to go where their minds lead them, despite the consequences.

            Such people have historically always borne the brunt of pursuing ideas that their contemporaries don't value, and in material terms that brunt has involved considerable self-sacrifice.  It is our great good fortune that in our current time and place that sacrifice is in terms of lost preferments, such as salary, honors, promotion, or jobs.  That's pretty weak stuff compared to hemlock, the stake or the firing-squad wall.  If our better intellectuals today can't stand up to a mere loss of preferment (or perhaps of a job), they are of much lesser character than the many committed thinkers of the past.  (Of course, those great names who come down to us as examples of courage were exceptional people, not the ordinary, of their day.)

            The moral issue as to these people is whether it is right to "make them pay an even higher price" than they would otherwise pay.  (There is always some price for independent inquiry.)  Hasn't our society learned from the past?  (The answer, of course, is that we have not fully learned the lesson, even though our society is much more humane on the point than most others have been.  Each time and place thinks itself right, and it is essentially in that conviction that the rationale for insisting on a certain strait-jacket is to be found.  Those who would impose "management by objectives" on scholars have a limited perspective and haven't the slightest conception of what lies beyond it.)

            The plight of the faculty member who is a moral weakling deserves analysis, and it is no doubt an important part of a discussion of the impact of a management policy; but much of an emphasis upon these individuals is somewhat demeaning to the intellectual community.  I'd have you put at least equal stress on what the management policy is choosing to do to those who are not weaklings....

            I was about to wind up here, but have still another thought to convey.  It is that it would be highly desirable to have at least one place in society -- such as at universities -- where scholars and researchers are able to go about their work without any evaluation of that intellectual effort at all!  Here the philosophy would be "to get good people and then let them go."

            You have probably read Tolstoy's War and Peace.  In part, it is a long essay comparing the management styles of Napoleon and Marshal Katusov.  Napoleon wanted everything managed to the smallest detail.  Katusov held to the view that you can train the army, you can instill it with spirit and can give it the best weapons possible, and you can put it in place -- but that the outcome of the battle will then depend upon intangible factors of the human spirit such as courage (or cowardice) at just the right moment.  Tolstoy clearly favored Katusov's view.  His book, perhaps the world's finest novel, is a splendid brief on behalf of the conception I would prefer for a university.  It should be a place full of vital energy -- of characters, of nay-sayers, of critics, of affirmers, of quiet reflective types, of passionate pleaders.  What a resource!  And who can judge any of its parts without disturbing the inner energy and the robust give-and-take?  My idea is to get together 600 people, say, with doctorates and let them go.  If some small number goof off, it's a small price to pay for the magnificent creative energy that doing so would allow.

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