Varsity plans to boot dead-wood academics
UFS vice-chancellor Francis Petersen outlines his plans to remove staff 'from their comfort zone'
Academics who constantly underperform at the University of the Free State despite receiving support face being dismissed, while those who narrowly miss out on promotions could be in line for a merit award.
In a bid to remove staff “from their comfort zone” the university's vice-chancellor, Professor Francis Petersen, has crafted a framework known as “performance management and career pathing for academic staff”, which is expected to be implemented by June.
The framework, which has been approved by the university’s senate, is one of seven key projects that Petersen will be focusing on.
The rationale behind career pathing for academics is to find out at what level junior and senior lecturers and associate professors and professors should perform at, as well as the areas they are expected to perform in.
According to Petersen, an academic’s work involves four categories: teaching and learning, research output, engaged scholarship or an academic’s contribution to society and their contribution to the department they were working in.
He said these categories would answer questions such as the average workload for teaching; the innovations that academics applied in their teaching; the number of publications in journals that were expected of academics; and an academic's contribution to society.
A set of criteria he is planning to develop will ensure that a senior lecturer in the faculty of theology is seen as being at the same level as a senior lecturer in health sciences or humanities.
“If we advertise for a senior lecturer in any department, I would then know what the minimum expectations are.”
Petersen said that if the criteria for an associate professor were known, a staff member would know what he or she needs to produce to be promoted from the rank of senior lecturer to associate professor.
“I said to academic staff in senate: ‘If we now know at what level a senior lecturer should function at and you are operating below that then there’s a consequence for underperformance’.”
The framework was focused on appointments, promotions, career pathing and underperformance.
Poorly performing academics would be given a talk to find out why they were underperforming, and would also be offered support.
“If you are still underperforming, then we would say some of the consequences could be that if there’s an annual salary increment you will only get half of the increase, or if you persist with underperformance you will get a zero percent increase.”
There would also be merit awards for those who missed out on promotions.
Petersen said that if you are a senior lecturer and the next rung is associate professor and you missed being promoted because of not performing in one of the categories, you would receive a merit award.
“The idea is you will get it for two years as an incentive, but after two years it will fall away because the expectation would be that you would have done what you needed to do to be promoted to associate professor level.”
There are 1,137 academics at the university, including 90 professors and 55 associate professors.
Another project that is receiving urgent priority, according to Petersen, “is how do we bring our health sciences faculty back to the level where it should be”.
“The faculty has lost a lot of intellectual capacity and has also fallen in terms of what I believe research output should be,” he said.
He has also formed a unit called Institutional Change to formulate responses to issues such as accommodation, mental health, and subsidised free higher education.
Another entity that has been established is the institutional multi-stakeholder group comprising 23 members, including 13 students, whose primary role is to deal with the university’s institutional culture.
“It will define what we would like the institutional culture to be. I want staff and students to feel a sense of belonging. They should feel included. That’s the culture I want to create at UFS, keeping in mind where the university comes from.”
Petersen has open discussions with staff and students at least four times a year.
Another milestone had been increased student participation in university structures, which had “never been necessarily the case at UFS”.
“I also wanted senate to take the academic project more seriously because they are the custodians of the academic project. So now, for example, we have annual teaching and learning reports and annual research reports.”
The university has more than 165 post-doctoral fellows and has increased its research output.
“In terms of research, we are on the right trajectory.”
Petersen wants to increase the 83% success rate for undergraduate students to 86%.
“We need to make sure that when a student comes into the university they have the adequate support to be able to effectively completely their degree.”