November 15, 2010


Professor Staiger asked Chair Neikirk about the feedback he had received from Council members to his request regarding the possibility of reducing the number of unexcused absences to fewer than the current limit of three consecutive ones as cause for removal from Council membership. Chair Neikirk said the FCEC was concerned that members make a commitment to come to meetings and pointed out that obtaining an excused absence was a matter of courtesy and only required sending an email to the staff at the Office of the General Faculty and Faculty Council indicating that a member was unable to attend. He said the only responses received thus far indicated there were no excuses for unexcused absences and the attendance policy should be made more rigorous. He said there was a review underway on the trends in attendance covering the past three years. When a member has been missing meetings, it has occasionally been discovered through an inquiry that the individual has left the University; however, Chair Neikirk said this was quite rare. He added that a more serious problem that needs to be rectified is when individuals accept the nominations, get elected, but then appear, through lack of attendance, to demonstrate no commitment to actually serve as a Council member.

Professor Phillip Doty (information) said he agreed with Chair Neikirk’s concerns in his chair’s report regarding the need for establishing an ad hoc committee, given the current political environment. However, he cautioned against the use of the terms faculty accountability and productivity. He added that he thought the faculty must very carefully choose the words to identify the committee’s name and not surrender the responsibility of evaluating the faculty’s contributions “to those who might be least capable of judging.” Chair Neikirk said he appreciated the comment and had indicated that he had no official title for the committee yet. Due to the politically charged debate underway, he agreed that the manner in which this issue would be addressed is absolutely critical. Chair Neikirk said he was afraid that the words accountability and productivity would be impossible to totally avoid, given proposals already under discussion. He said he would like to have a relatively brief title for the committee but did not know at this point what that might be.

When Professor Barrish asked if it would be correct to assume that the focus at present was largely on teaching-related performance, Chair Neikirk said he did not think this was at all true and referred to the Texas A&M performance measure that has received so much press. He said he felt it would be unwise to “concentrate on any single measure of anything.” According to Chair Neikirk, the measure needs to be a composite one, and discussion about the appropriate level of aggregation, such as the departmental vs. the individual level, would be essential. He pointed out that the A&M approach drilled all the way down to the individual faculty member and was based on a very simplistic methodology. He said these were issues that the new committee would need to determine, but it was important to meet this challenge sensibly and expeditiously. He added that the faculty must not be overly dependent on administrative leadership on this matter because the administrators are also vulnerable to potential top-down pressures.

Dr. Hillary Hart (civil, environmental, and architectural engineering) said she perceived that a number of Council members would like to see this committee established. She asked if it were worthwhile to have a confidence vote at the meeting or if the will of the Council regarding the initiation of this committee could be indicated via a show of hands to get its charge and work underway. Chair Neikirk responded that a motion could be made from the floor. Dr. Hart made a motion that a show of hands be requested about starting this ad hoc committee. Chair Neikirk asked it there were a second of the motion, and there was a positive response from the floor.

Professor Michael Domjan (psychology) said he thought it was important that Council actions not in any way imply that there were no faculty accountability assessments and practices already in place. He said he felt, and he thought many faculty members shared his perception, that faculty members are already “heavily assessed and evaluated.” He said he thought this opinion would be particularly true for assistant professors but was true for faculty members at all levels within the University. Professor Domjan recommended that whatever is done be carefully framed and not imply in any way that faculty members need to be more aware of their responsibility to the citizens of Texas than they already are. He added that he felt faculty members across campus shared his deeply held sense of responsibility to the state and its citizens for the work they do daily to promote the University’s contributions to instruction, discovery, and service.

Professor Staiger said she did not see this merely as a public relations matter and had originally proposed a lengthy name for the committee to convey the University’s high standards and contributions to society. She added that she was very concerned about the perception that faculty members are “under-assessed and under-accountable at this point.” She said the committee would need to discover ways to explain our role and contributions, which she thought has been an on-going challenge for higher education for some time. Chair Neikirk said he felt it was critically important to avoid sending the message that the faculty are already sufficiently evaluated and don’t need to do anything differently than in the past. Although he said he knew faculty members were continually assessed, he thought the process needed to be improved. Dr. Hart said she was in agreement with the points that had been made, especially with the ones indicating there was already a great deal of on-going evaluation in place. However, she said the committee seemed necessary to her because of the added external political pressures existing today and the limited awareness among the citizenry about all that is currently being accomplished by the faculty at UT Austin.

Chair Neikirk said he wondered how much faculty input had been involved in the proposed THECB funding formula. Because these recommendations are already out for deliberation and decision-making, he felt faculty members should be more fully engaged with the developments than many seem to be. When Professor Staiger said the THECB proposals had not been formally adopted, Chair Neikirk pointed out that the recommendations had been sent to the Texas Legislature for consideration during the 2011 session.

Professor Doug Bruster (English) asked if a friendly amendment to call the ad hoc committee the Committee on Faculty Excellence would be acceptable. He said he thought this was an appropriate name and would provide the opportunity to say to the legislature that, “if you want an excellent university of the first-class, you need to fund it.” Dr. Hart responded that she thought the committee would need to determine its name, but she would accept the amendment as friendly “unless somebody is not going to vote for this because of the name.”

Dr. Blinda McClelland (biological sciences) asked if the assessment mechanism would tie into faculty annual reports in some way and not just add “an excess burden of assessment.” In addition, she said she wanted to know if the mechanism would be relevant in terms of providing information to the general public and perhaps setting standards of excellence that allowed comparisons between universities. Chair Neikirk said he thought her concerns were reaching beyond the current proposal’s intent. He said the proposal was that an ad hoc committee be formed and part of its task was to determine an appropriate charge for its on-going work, but he did not anticipate that its accomplishments would be of use to every public institution in Texas.

Dr. Hart called the question with regard to her motion. Professor Pauline Strong (anthropology) asked that Dr. Hart repeat her motion and include the new language regarding the committee’s title. Dr. Hart responded that her motion was for the Faculty Council to form an ad hoc committee, not comprised of only Faculty Council members, called the Faculty Excellence Committee to set some standards, create its own charge, and work with the provost’s office on creating greater transparency in communicating with the outside world about what faculty do and why they need to be funded. Professor Strong asked if the language regarding setting standards had been omitted from the motion? She said she thought the committee could consider the issue of standards for faculty work; however, because the committee might conclude that new standards were not needed, she did not think establishing new standards or measures needed to be included in the motion.

Professor Barrish asked if reframing the motion as follows would be satisfactory, “That the Faculty Council create an ad hoc committee to investigate the question of more clearly communicating our own standards for productivity and excellence.” When Chair Neikirk asked Dr. Hart if she would accept the new wording as a friendly amendment, Dr. Hart said “yes” and again asked that the question on her motion be called. Chair Neikirk called for the vote to call the question, which passed by voice vote with two abstentions. Chair Neikirk then called for the vote on Dr. Hart’s revised motion with friendly amendments. The revised motion was approved by voice vote, but the audible responses included a few negative votes, the number of which was indeterminable from the audio transcript of the meeting.

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