A fable on politicized performance reviews (opinion)

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We professors tend to procrastinate. And maybe I’m a little slacker than average.

So, it’s no surprise that I waited until the last day to open the file and fill out my annual faculty performance review. It was long, longer than last year, which was longer than the year before and so on. There were nine categories we needed to report on. None were really unexpected. We had to describe our scholarly work, the classes we taught, the administrative jobs we’d completed. We had to enumerate the prizes we’d won and the grants we’d gotten (zero and zero in my case).

But this year there was something new. In my rush to get the form done, I almost missed it. And when I did see it, I was really upset. Under every category there was a new and unexpected question. What had our scholarship done, what had our teaching done to advance certain causes? To be more specific, what had it done to advance the cause of Freedom? And what had it done to advance the cause of Flag?

Flag and Freedom: those were the two new rubrics on our review forms. I wasn’t sure what they meant by Freedom—I’m all for liberty and everything, but Freedom does seem to have become a political buzzword, mainly for the right. And Flag? Did that mean patriotism? Did that mean I had to make a profession of loyalty to the United States of America? I love my country; of course I do. But that question sounded like part of a loyalty oath out of the McCarthy period. It all seemed crazy. I had to figure out what was going on.

I rushed to campus as fast as I could, probably forgetting even more things than usual. I was going to talk with my chair. He’s a wonderful, understanding guy, and I was sure he’d be able to set me straight. But before I got to the chair’s office, I ran into the dean of the college. The dean is tall and commanding and well-known for her intelligence and candor.

I barely said hello to the dean, but simply started to babble at her. “What is this?” I asked. “This isn’t right. You’re asking us to make political commitments. We’re supposed to enjoy academic freedom, and you’re trying to direct our work to political ends. Flag and Freedom. I may value those things. We all probably do in our way. But they’re political values now—or they have been politicized; maybe that’s a better way to put it. Don’t you think our teaching and writing should be free from political pressure?”

The dean is a very patient and kindly person, but I could see that she was getting exasperated.

“Oh, no,” she said, “another one.”

I thought she meant another person complaining about these new standards. And that actually felt good. Maybe I had some allies out there and I could calm down. But no, that’s not what she meant at all.

“There were mistakes,” the dean said with a long sigh, “and I thought we had caught them all.”

“Mistakes?”

“Yes, a few evaluation templates went out with the wrong categories—political categories. I thought we’d found them all and replaced them, but I guess not.”

“How did that happen?”

The dean said she wasn’t sure. Maybe some right-winger played a dumb joke of some kind. “But when you saw them,” she said, “you probably should have known. We can’t ask you to make your work conform to a political agenda. That would be unethical, and it would land us in big trouble.”

I can’t tell you how relieved I was. Flag? Freedom? I have no idea what I would have said. I might even have left the boxes blank in protest.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “we’ll be using our regular categories this year, but we will be asking an extra question. And it won’t be about Flag and Freedom,” she said with a soft chuckle. “We’ll be asking you how your contribution in every category adds to the ethical commitments that the university—you and I, really—have made.”

“So diversity, equity and inclusion?” I asked. “Those ethical commitments.”

“Yes, precisely,” the dean said. “Just about every university is doing this now. Or they’re going to pretty soon.”

“Now there are people who say that diversity is a political value. They associate it with affirmative action. And do you know”—the dean frowned a majestic frown—“the majority of Americans, by most polls, are against affirmative action?”

I was confused. “So doesn’t that make it political?” I asked. “You know, like Flag and Freedom.”

“No, no,” she said. “That’s a common mistake. Diversity is an ethical commitment. It’s not about majorities and voting and that sort of thing. It’s about right and wrong. You’re not against diversity?” she asked.

I hastened to say that I wasn’t, not a bit. I was all for diversity. Though at that point, I did recall that the university has never taken the time to tell us exactly what it means by the word. Nor had it ever told us what it means by equity and inclusion.

“And I’m sure,” the dean continued, “that you’re all for equity. Which is another ethical value we share here.”

“Equity? Well, that’s got to be a good thing. I guess I’m all for it.”

“Good, good. I’m glad to hear that,” she said, but with not much affability now. I was beginning to think that I was being scrutinized, maybe evaluated for loyalty. “Are you one of us?” That sort of thing. I was about to tell her how I’d voted twice for Bernie Sanders but managed to stop myself.

“Now there are people, wrong-thinking people, who feel that equity is political, too,” she said. “They’re maybe OK with giving poor and disadvantaged populations help at the start. That’s equal opportunity. But then they get furious when we say that those disadvantaged people should get a leg up when it comes to landing a job or getting promoted. They say it’s ‘putting a finger on the scale.’”

“Well, I don’t think I agree with them,” I said. Maybe because I believed it, but maybe because I wanted to get out of the dean’s bad graces. I’m an associate professor now. I hope to be going up for full professor next spring. It’d be no help to have the dean as an enemy. But then a thought occurred to me, and for whatever reason I couldn’t keep my mouth closed.

“I’m with you on equity,” I said. “I really am.” And at that moment I really was, too. I wanted to smooth that scowl off the dean’s face.

“Still,” I said, “couldn’t honorable people disagree on this equity issue? I mean not on equity at the starting line, that’s a no-brainer. But couldn’t people disagree on how far into life to extend the principle? So isn’t it, sort of, political?”

“This institution,” she said, “is trying to do some good in the world. We want to do ethical good. But let me underline this”—she was really frowning now—“we can ponder these commitments, but basically they are inarguable. They’re not political footballs like Flag and Freedom and whatever else—Faith and Family. These are inarguable goods. Or at least that’s how I see it, and the university does, too.”

I stood there gulping. I was going to ask what the school meant by inclusion, but it was clearly time to cut my losses.

“Now,” the dean said gently, “you’d probably better go home and fill out your annual report. There isn’t much time. And I’m sure that if you think about it, you’ll see that there are a dozen ways that your work feeds directly into our ethical program.”

She was so confident, and she argued so well—at least a lot better than I could, and after all, she was the dean. So I nodded and smiled and went home as fast as I could and got to work. I was surprised how much (with maybe some stretching here and there) I had to put down under diversity, equity and inclusion. And now that I know how important this is, I’ll probably have more for the next review. I already have ideas for new DEI writing projects and new DEI courses to teach. Despite all my worries and my doing it last minute, I managed to file a good report. I wouldn’t be surprised if I really am promoted to full professor next spring.


Note: This is, truly, a fiction, a fable. But, fact: this year my college asked that in their annual reports faculty relate how they contributed to diversity, equity and inclusion in each aspect of their work, including their teaching and their research. Other colleges will no doubt follow, if they have not already done so.

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