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What does a post-tenure review really mean?

Post-Tenure Blues
March 2, 2012

The phrase “post-tenure review” can mean different things to different people.

Talk of “post-tenure review” is in circulation at the University of Texas System after the Board of Regents approved tougher rules earlier this month – requiring tenured faculty members in the system to be evaluated annually and receive rankings from “exceeds expectation” to “unsatisfactory.” Two unsatisfactory reviews can lead to a comprehensive review and a possible dismissal.

To some, “post-tenure review” raises the issue of whether a professor’s tenure will continue. To others, it is a process of evaluating performance to provide valuable feedback.

The latter is how Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT system, put it during a visit to the offices of Inside Higher Ed last week. Cigarroa stressed the importance of “performance differentiation” and how those professors getting unsatisfactory reviews will be helped with a remediation plan. He said one weakness of the previous post-tenure review system was that the best rating a professor could attain was “satisfactory.” And irrespective of what happened in between, a tenured professor would get a comprehensive review only once in six years.

The new professor ratings are: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, does not meet expectations and unsatisfactory. The post-tenure evaluations can be used for salary raises and promotions, and those failing remediation may lose their jobs. The department chair, dean or a peer-review committee will do the initial evaluations with the department chair or dean doing a final review of the evaluation. In case of a comprehensive review, a peer review committee including representatives of the school or department will also be appointed. Individual campuses will set their own policies using the new post-tenure review rules as a template.

Officials were not able to provide data on how many tenured UT professors have been dismissed in the past.

“The new document links annual reviews, post-tenure reviews and possible reviews for termination,” said Alan Friedman, a professor of English who is the chairman of the UT-Austin faculty council and member of the systemwide faculty advisory council. “The annual review that was used primarily for salary increases will take on much greater significance."

University of Texas professors have been under fire from some quarters in the state, with Rick O’Donnell, a former special adviser to the UT system, calling them slackers. But Cigarroa stressed that the new rules came about after discussion with the university’s Faculty Advisory Council. “This is not punitive but constructive,” Cigarroa said.

Last year, a draft version of a new post-tenure review process, was approved by the UT System Faculty Advisory Council. But this version was not too much different from the system already in place, according to Friedman, and wasn’t to the liking of the chancellor and other administrators.

Another version of the revised post-tenure review rules developed by a task force of faculty council members and administrators was eventually adopted. This version was tweaked before it passed, because it had been criticized by some faculty council members.  According to Murray Leaf, a professor of anthropology and political economy at UT-Dallas who is on the executive committee of the FAC, subtle changes were made to the final version. For example, the language was changed to reflect that two unsatisfactory annual reviews “may” lead to a comprehensive review instead of “shall.” Also, a few sentences were added to a section on annual reviews to clarify that they are different from the comprehensive review.

“The way I interpreted it from the information given to us was that the chancellor was in a tough place in regard to the regents and we were being asked to support this plan,” Friedman said. “Some faculty members will be spending a lot more time evaluating productivity than being productive. The chairs of different departments have a major new workload,” he said. Friedman worried that the new review plan would have a negative impact on the reputation of the university. “Many people will see this as an assault on tenure. It will become harder to recruit and retain outstanding faculty,” he said.

The step by UT -- one of the largest public universities in the nation, with 5,268 tenured faculty members -- not only gives rise to the question of whether more universities will follow suit but also the inevitable question about the viability of tenure.

Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, said the revamping of the rules seemed highly visible because it was happening at the state’s top university, and wondered whether the rule changes were more about setting an example for the rest of the state. “I think the changes are pretty minor and there is only a slight change in the rules. I do not think this will make much of a difference,” Hamermesh said. “The new rules are not such a bad thing and the professors will adjust accordingly.”

The American Association of University Professors has long criticized the practice of post-tenure reviews and its leaders said such a system rarely provided any benefits. “It can deprive a tenured faculty member of the presumption of competence and it can have a chilling effect on academic freedom,” said Greg Scholtz, AAUP’s director of academic freedom, tenure and governance.

AAUP’s existing policy on such reviews says that “no procedure for evaluation of faculty should be used to weaken or undermine the principles of academic freedom and tenure. The association cautions particularly against allowing any general system of evaluation to be used as grounds for dismissal or other disciplinary sanctions."

While the organization approves of reviews for merit raises, it does not call them post-tenure reviews. “We are also not opposed to voluntary reviews that are intended to assist a professor in improving his or her performance. But such a review is not what is usually called 'post-tenure review,' ” Scholtz said.

Scholtz drew a distinction between formalized post-tenure processes and a “dismissal for cause”, which can be a way for a tenured professor to be fired but also added that “some post-tenure reviews procedures can, and all-too-often do, lead to a faculty member being dismissed for cause.”

But those cases, because they are so rare, can test the system. The Faculty Council at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus has been debating the strength of evidence required against a tenured professor to recommend dismissal. The issue revolves around allegations against Greg Engel, an associate professor of engineering at the Columbia campus, who has been accused by three Chinese students of racism and sexism after he gave them failing grades for alleged plagiarism.  

A student grievance committee has cleared Engel and a Faculty Responsibility Committee also cleared him because of a “lack of clear and convincing evidence.”

“The question that has come up is whether the Committee on Faculty Responsibility should rule by a ‘preponderance of evidence’ or ‘clear and convincing evidence,’ ” said Clyde Bentley, an associate professor of journalism and member of the Faculty Council. The provost has suggested that the lower standard – “preponderance of evidence” -- be used and the case be sent back to the responsibility committee, which could recommend dismissal. A tenured professor can be fired through a decision of the Board of Curators. On Thursday, UM’s Faculty Council recommended that the chancellor uphold the original decision  by the faculty responsibility committee.

But is UT’s new review process a harbinger of the future of tenure? The AAUP does not collect data on post-tenure reviews, but Scholtz said his rough estimate was that one-third of universities have such systems in place, based on his reviews of some faculty handbooks every year.

David Adamany, the former president of Temple University and Wayne State University, said he did not foresee widespread adoption of policies that would put the institution of tenure at risk. He said it was hard to foresee faculty committees making decisions that would get their colleagues dismissed.

“Most major universities have an annual form of review. My own view is that a more formal review at periodic intervals of 7 to 10 years is helpful to give faculty members feedback on what their strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “Faculty members can get a sense of their career trajectory from these kinds of reviews.”

The reason that the demands for post-tenure reviews are more visible now might be connected to the removal of an exemption in 1994 from the 1986 Age Discrimination Act, Adamany said. The exemption allowed colleges, until 1994, to enforce mandatory retirement at 70. “There is a category of much older faculty like me who do not retire and might not be rigorously reviewed,” he said. Such a situation not only makes it expensive for a university but also prevents younger faculty members from finding jobs. “But I do not see any real drive in this country to end tenure,” Adamany added.

Hamermesh, the UT-Austin professor, felt the tenure system might become bifurcated such that the top public universities are not affected, but lesser universities undergo some kind of modification when it comes to tenure.

At UT, some faculty leaders think that the evaluation process would turn the tenure system on its head. "There is no question that the post-tenure review system undermines tenure. Professors will be looking over their shoulders. Their will be no more independent thinking,” said James Aldridge, vice president of the University of Texas Pan American chapter of the Texas Faculty Association. “We fear that the intent of the new policy is to arbitrarily increase the number of professors whose performance is deemed unsatisfactory.”

 

 

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