Merit Policy Considerations

Executive Summary: The College of Arts and Sciences has issued guidance for unit merit policies that would require faculty to meet expectations in each of their areas of responsibility in order to be eligible for any merit raise at all. Such a requirement would be in conflict with the language and intent of Section 3b of Article 26 of the collective bargaining agreement. More importantly, pushing such a policy could backfire, encouraging units to adopt lower standards for teaching, service, and research than they might absent this guidance—especially in light of the unprecedented disruptions to every domain of our work over the last few years. In accordance with Section 2 of Article 4(Unit-Level Policies), units have an opportunity to review policy guidance from deans and submit revisions to those policies. We urge faculty to thoughtfully consider the arguments laid out in this message, decide what would work best for their unit, and propose merit policies that would best align with the accomplishment of genuinely excellent work—regardless of what a college- or school-level template might suggest.

Greetings, colleagues,

As directed by Implementation Agreement 2 in Appendix 1 of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), units are actively working–or soon will be working–to revise and submit their merit policies for approval by the end of the Spring 2023 term.

The Office of the Provost, the leadership of the colleges and schools across campus, and United Academics are in firm agreement that the revision of unit merit policies offers the potential to reward more genuinely the work faculty have been engaged in as well as elevate our vision and efforts to guide our work to come.

Deans of colleges and schools may prepare and issue templates for merit policies to assist units during this process. This practice is fully in keeping with Section 1 of Article 4 of the CBA (Unit-Level Policies). Section 2 clarifies that “the faculty will first consider any input provided by the appropriate governance committee, department or unit head, dean, vice president, Provost, or designee,” and that faculty may amend policy suggestions from a dean and submit an amended policy for approval.

While acknowledging that we are all strapped for time and attention, we note that this is an incredibly important touchpoint for local shared governance. Unit by unit, we faculty have the opportunity to pause and reflect on what matters in our work and how our efforts—past and future—should be measured and rewarded.

This should be a moment for thoughtful consideration of the structures and incentives we want to establish for ourselves, each of us within the context of our respective disciplines.

One of the issues that units need to address in their merit policies is how to handle cases in which faculty meet or exceed expectations in some but not all of their areas of responsibility.

The guidelines issued by the College of Arts and Sciences include this language:

  • Merit policy should explicitly state that only faculty who receive an overall assessment of meets or exceeds expectation qualify for a merit increase
  • Not meeting expectations in any category precludes an overall assessment of meets or exceeds

Two key points:

  1. This isn’t actually what the CBA says.
  2. Even if the language of the CBA were interpreted in this way, insisting on this approach could lead to unintended consequences that would undermine its own intent and goals.

On the first point, the guidance from CAS seems consistent with a reading of Appendix 2 of the CBA:

  • Merit Review Policies: Every unit will have a policy for distributing merit pool money to bargaining unit faculty members who meet or exceed expectations for teaching; research, scholarship, and creative activities; and service, in accordance with the unit’s Article 17 professional responsibilities policy and individual faculty member’s assigned duties. Criteria should be clear and consistent with those relevant to Article 19: Career Review and Promotion and Article 20: Tenure Review and Promotion. Policies should describe how the levels (meets or exceeds, etc.) are used in determining individual merit increases. Merit distributions should be given as a percentage of base salary, irrespective of FTE in any given review period, and not as a flat dollar amount.

This language may be interpreted to mean that faculty need to meet or exceed expectations in every relevant area of their responsibility to be eligible for any merit increase at all.

However, Article 26, which specifically outlines the guidelines for this CBA cycle of institution-wide raises and has greater force than the supplemental appendices, states the following in Section 3b:

  • Distribution: Merit distributions should be given as a percentage of base salary, irrespective of FTE in any given review period, and not as a flat dollar amount, unless the unit has Office of the Provost approval for the distribution. Unit level merit policies must include criteria for determining whether faculty members exceed, meet, or do not meet expectations in teaching, service, and research, as applicable, and a methodology for determining when faculty meet expectations overall based on their ratings in those areas.

The last phrase indicates that units should explain how they determine whether faculty meet expectations overall based on the ratings in a faculty member's areas of responsibility. This presumes that there can be—or even needs to be!—scope for some degree of merit eligibility if a faculty member meets (or even exceeds) expectations by a wide margin in multiple areas yet falls slightly short in one of them.

Note that this phrase would be vacuous under the interpretation CAS is proposing. If a faculty member is indeed meeting expectations in each area, then it is trivially true that they are meeting expectations overall. No methodology would be needed to make an overall determination of meeting expectations if faculty were simply required to meet expectations in each area of responsibility in order to be eligible for any merit increase at all.

The interpretation of CBA language is the shared purview of the two parties to the agreement: the University of Oregon and United Academics. The end of Appendix 1 outlines the process for when there are disputes about implementation, including the revision of merit policies and unit policies:

  • Status of or concerns about the implementation of the agreements above or other commitments made in the body of the parties' successor agreement shall be first discussed in Joint Labor Management Committee.

Once made aware of the merit policy guidance from CAS, we forwarded our concerns to the Office of the Provost and discussed them at a meeting of the Joint Labor Management Committee on Friday, Feb 24. The representative of the Office of the Provost at that meeting was receptive to our concerns but unsure of how to proceed in light of the guidance being sent out from CAS.

To be absolutely clear, the goals of the policy proposed by CAS—to award merit only to those who meet expectations in all of their areas of responsibility—are understandable and made in good faith. Overlooking weaknesses in the teaching or service contributions of tenure-track faculty, for example, is—regrettably—a generations-long tradition throughout the academy. Bringing our work into greater alignment with our job duties is a thoroughly reasonable idea, and explicitly rewarding a more balanced approach to our duties would be good practice.

If it were the case that the merit policy revisions in the works were exclusively forward-looking—giving faculty detailed direction on how they should spend their time and efforts over the months and years to come—then this approach would be a sensible baseline. There should still be room for contemplating contingencies or special circumstances, but this would be a decent starting point.

However, the central problem is that this merit policy revision is also backward-looking. Faculty are presently deciding how their efforts since their last merit review (if any, so far) will be measured, weighed, and rewarded. Essentially all of the work for which we will be judged ahead of the disbursement of merit raises in January 2024 is already in the past.

Regardless of how detailed or well-designed a merit policy may be, it simply isn’t possible for a new policy to incentivize or change past behavior.

To the extent that a new merit policy for a unit might differ from merit policies previously in place, there would be a mismatch in the alignment of faculty work already completed. An ex post facto merit policy—especially one that carries the very real possibility of zero merit raise in circumstances where that wouldn’t have been the case under past practice—has the potential to be profoundly demoralizing.

The look-back window for the merit raise of January 2024 stretches over the unprecedented disruptions to our teaching, service, and research during the pandemic (and beyond). The upheavals to our duties and the challenges we collectively faced have had no equal across our careers. Worse still, these disruptions only served to exacerbate the existing inequities that plague higher education, such as the disproportionate impact on caregivers affected by more than a year of remote schooling or the drastic curtailment of childcare options.

In many cases, it was simply impossible to pursue certain research projects given the unforeseen constraints of the pandemic. Preparing and delivering courses in entirely new ways to traumatized students during the remote times was incredibly hard work and not always successful. Each of us stumbled—in innumerable ways. Of course we did. Extra time spent on courses to shore up their quality came at the expense of other duties (or our family obligations, or our physical or mental health), but it felt like the right thing to do in terms of doing right by our students. Cruelly, this dynamic didn’t end with universal remote instruction: the transition back to in-person courses during the 2021-2022 academic year was also fraught and frustrating.

What does all of that mean now?

How do we look back on what we accomplished? On what our colleagues accomplished?

The thought that one of our colleagues may have worked tirelessly to continue their work to the best of their abilities under the most difficult of circumstances only to fall slightly short in one of their areas of responsibility and then—consequently—be told by their unit and by our institution that their work over this period had zero merit is shattering. Unconscionable.

Faculty are exhausted. We collectively expressed deep-seated frustrations on last year’s IDEAL Climate Survey of UO Employees conducted by Gallup. Particularly in our present context, it would behoove everyone if we managed to avoid the crushing outcome sketched in the previous paragraph.

“Our working conditions are student learning conditions” is a steady refrain of organized labor in education.

Throughout the disruptions of the pandemic we were enjoined by campus leadership to extend grace to our students—as well as to our colleagues, our supervisors, and ourselves.

How can we practice grace when there is no grace?

How can we practice empathy when there is no empathy?

A core misconception of organized labor is that it exists to enable or encourage mediocrity.

The Preamble of the CBA reads, in part:

  • The intent and purpose of this Agreement is to establish the working conditions of the bargaining unit faculty members, to further bargaining unit faculty members’ pursuit of excellence and innovation in education, research, and service at the University of Oregon and to ensure the success and academic excellence of the University.

The intent and purpose of this present message is the same. United Academics seeks to foster excellence by avoiding structures and conditions that would enshrine or reward mediocrity.

Faculty are already uncomfortable with the idea that adhering to the guidance from CAS would leave one or more of their colleagues without any merit raise at all—without any regard for how impressive their other accomplishments might be. Likewise, faculty may harbor concerns about how their individual struggles during the pandemic—visible or otherwise—may affect their own chances for receiving a merit raise.

Here is where the planned guidance from CAS has the potential to unravel and undermine itself.

Consider these three plausible scenarios as the January 2024 merit raise and its look-back window across the pandemic loom large in the thoughts of faculty.

First, they may opt to set lower thresholds for meeting expectations in the areas of teaching, service, and research than they would if the new merit policies were forward-looking only. This might be true regardless of how a determination of overall merit is to be handled, but on the margin there is an even higher likelihood that one or more bars for meeting expectations will be preemptively lowered lest it be the margin on which one or more of their colleagues are left without a merit raise.

Second, faculty may intentionally set vague merit policies to leave themselves plausible wiggle room to apply criteria selectively, as needed, to protect valued or powerful colleagues (or themselves, for that matter). The more subjective or ambiguous a unit’s policies, however, the less transparent they would be for all faculty in that unit. Moreover, applying vague merit policies selectively as a function of rank, privilege, or power would erode trust, increase inequities, and sow discord.

Third, faculty may craft lofty merit policies in writing now only to ignore them in practice later. Of the three, this is the most worrisome path, setting a precedent that policies can operate as little more than a shared lie. Nothing could be more corrosive to our shared work.

Any of these three scenarios would run counter to the goals of the CAS policy, which is clearly intended to increase accountability and to elevate our standards for teaching, service, and research.

We should work toward genuinely enhancing, supporting, and rewarding the work faculty perform across all of their duties. Again, these are good goals!

It is essential, though, that this effort be done in a transparent and forward-looking way so that everyone knows the rules of the game and can respond accordingly. Establishing these expectations in the context of a backward-looking merit review covering the worst time in our collective careers is shortsighted and risks being counterproductive.

So what do we do at this point?

Faculty and units should follow the procedure outlined in Section 2 of Article 4of the CBA:

  • Consider the input provided by a unit head, department head, dean, vice president, Provost, or designee.
  • Amend those suggestions as appropriate.
  • Submit an amended policy for approval if they choose to make changes.

It is not too late to make changes, and units aren’t constrained to submit policies in accordance with a dean’s suggested guidance. Our hands aren’t tied. We faculty have agency and a voice in this process, and now is the time to use it.

As required in Section 3b of Article 26 of the CBA, our unit merit policies should include “a methodology for determining when faculty meet expectations overall based on their ratings in those areas.” As outlined in the arguments above, it would be wise for this methodology to be substantive and meaningful in light of our present moment and recent struggles.

Although there may be cases when it truly wouldn’t be appropriate to award a merit raise, intentionally including a more flexible mechanism for evaluating whether a faculty member meets expectations overall will help maintain and enhance rather than diminish our standards for teaching, service, and research.

We faculty are clever folks, and there is boundless space for us to design merit policies that strengthen accountability without punishing vulnerability, reifying structural inequities, or lowering our expectations—unintentionally or otherwise.

Let us be excellent, and let us take this moment together to be thoughtful and conscientious about what that means in our respective roles.

Mike Urbancic
Senior Instructor, Economics
President, United Academics of the University of Oregon
AAUP/AFT Local 3209, AFL-CIO
[email protected]