A Structure for Addressing Power and Transparency in Decision Making

May 27, 2021

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By Kimberly Bender, Philip D. and Eleanor G. Winn Endowed Professor for Children and Youth at Risk, Co-chair of the promotion and tenure committee at GSSW

This year, our Promotion & Tenure (P&T) committee used the Deliberative Decision Making (DDM) model, with support from the VPFA’s office, to consider promotions at GSSW. Change is not always welcomed with open arms, but as soon as we broached the subject of how our usual deliberation process could be improved, the feedback started to flow. Faculty admitted it wasn’t always clear what should and should not be brought into the room when discussing faculty promotion; faculty shared that they often didn’t say anything at all and instead listened to more seasoned or outspoken colleagues share their perspectives; when differing opinions arose, it wasn’t clear if the point was to argue until a colleague was converted (which rarely occurred). Meetings felt intense and ambiguous. We all recognized the importance of P&T meetings, of hosting a fair and collective process that determined the promotion of our colleagues, but we realized we had very little structure to guide a discussion of such consequence. Enter DDM.

We started the meeting with a discussion of the criteria for promotion—a chance for faculty to share their interpretation of our written expectations. There was a lot of consensus and a lot of variety in what people saw as evidence of criteria and the value they placed on different types of contributions. I found myself wishing I had heard this discussion before I sought promotion. Making explicit how expectations and criteria were interpreted created great transparency and reduced the need to guess what others were valuing. It also directed our subsequent discussion of each promotion case to be centered on the criteria we had just made explicit.

Everyone in the meeting was asked to share their individual perspective, putting it into the room for others to take or leave as they made their own decisions. Speaking order was random and time limited. We heard from people who are often very quiet, and those who often spoke more were limited in their time. We didn’t drift in one direction based on the same small group of people who usually spoke first; instead, we had different people speak early and provide input that everyone could consider in their own sharing. When differences of understanding or perspective came up, as a group, we decided to do another round of perspective sharing on that specific topic, giving room and breath to the conversation where, in the past, tensions would simmer or go unresolved. It wasn’t a perfect process. We are still learning how to use the model in a way that allows enough space to discuss points of contention. But, overall, the feedback was quite positive. Our faculty had a better sense of what we were discussing and where others stood; they could hear the voice of everyone in the room and could make an informed decision for themselves after hearing assessments as a collective.

We will continue to use the DDM model in promotion decisions moving forward, and others have suggested its value for other high-stakes discussions like our search and screening process. As a faculty, we have great responsibility in our shared governance. Developing a structure for addressing power and transparency in our decision making allowed us to function most openly and effectively as a collective.

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