Posttenure Review or a Plan to Undercut Tenure?

Right after U of Tennessee faculty members agreed on plan to toughen oversight of tenured professors, system proposed rules many say endanger academic freedom.

February 27, 2018
 
University of Tennessee at Knoxville

A joint committee of faculty members and administrators from across the University of Tennessee’s four campuses spent months revising the system’s posttenure review policy, which it acknowledged was outdated and needed strengthening. The committee included the university system's Board of Trustees in its process and its recommendations were adopted this year, with the goal of making posttenure review clearer and more meaningful.

So professors from across the system are baffled and alarmed by a new, hastily written add-on proposal from the trustees, with some saying it challenges the idea of tenure altogether.

“We’re concerned they're putting together a very ambiguous board policy that threatens academic freedom and represents a huge service load on the faculty,” said Beauvais Lyons, Chancellor’s Professor of Art at the Knoxville campus and president of its Faculty Senate.

Tennessee’s current -- and still very new -- Enhanced Posttenure Performance Review (EPPR) policy says that a campus chief academic officer must initiate an assessment after a professor gets an overall “unsatisfactory” annual performance review rating (the lowest category) or two annual review ratings of “needs improvement” (the next-to-lowest rating) in a four-year period.

Professors may also request an enhanced posttenure review after at least four regular, annual review cycles.

But earlier this month, professors found out that the trustees had written a new part of the policy, reserving the board’s right to direct administrations to review “some or all tenured faculty of a campus, college, school, department or division at any given time or at periodic intervals, as the board in its discretion deems warranted.”

Faculty members pushed back, saying that the proposal was too vague and ignored the role of the faculty in such matters. After some back-and-forth, the board added language affirming “the importance of tenure in protecting academic freedom and thus promoting the university’s principle [sic] mission of discovery and dissemination of truth through teaching, research, and service.”

Yet the policy goes on to say that the board “recognizes its fiduciary responsibility to students, parents, and all citizens of Tennessee to ensure that faculty members effectively serve the needs of students and the university throughout their careers.”

Therefore, it says, the board “may require the [system] president to establish procedures under which a comprehensive peer review shall be conducted of all faculty members, both tenured and non-tenured, in an academic program that has been identified as underperforming through an academic program review process.”

The president shall also establish, with board approval, “procedures for every tenured faculty member at a campus to receive a comprehensive peer review no less often than every six years.”

Such reviews may be “staggered” under the proposal, to avoid putting undo administrative work on faculty reviewers. But Lyons, of Knoxville, said the policy undeniably burdens professors with reviewing the work of their peers, top to bottom, every six years.

“The philosophy of the board is to maximize faculty productivity, yet they’re doing it through a system that requires more service of faculty,” he said.

The program review clause, meanwhile, falsely equates faculty performance with program performance, Lyons said, and “runs the risk -- if they don’t like what the College of Social Work is doing, or if they don’t like an area of research in sociology -- of being used for retribution based on data that are not rooted in the academic mission.”

By data, Lyons was referring to metrics such as numbers of majors, enrollment and cost of instructional delivery that institutions are increasingly drawing on to, in administrative terms, streamline operations. Advocates of these academic reviews say that they help colleges and universities concentrate resources where they can make the most impact. But critics say that unless they’re done thoughtfully, with faculty input, such reviews paint an incomplete picture of program success or lack thereof. Numbers of majors don’t necessarily demonstrate the important role of more service-oriented departments in delivering general education, and thereby fulfilling institutions’ liberal arts missions, for example. 

Bruce Maclennan, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Knoxville and chair of the systemwide University of Tennessee Faculty Council, said that body has multiple concerns about the proposal. It's vague and seems to be redundant, he said, in that faculty members “already have rigorous annual reviews and performance that does not meet specified expectations can trigger an EPPR,” which can lead to termination.

And while the policy’s “peer review” feature is short on detail as of now, he said, “many faculty are concerned that regular posttenure reviews will consume significant faculty time serving on review committees and perhaps also preparing review dossiers.”

Like Lyons, Maclennan said he, too, worried that the proposal could be “abused to target politically unpopular faculty or departments,” weakening tenure protections overall.

Monica Black, the Lindsay Young Associate Professor of History and president of Knoxville’s American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter, called the entire process “very rushed.” Faculty members have days to review and offer comment on the policy document, she said.

“We spent a lot of time creating a policy that is just now in place, and now this sloppy proposal is being put forth very quickly and in a very vague way.”

Lyons said the proposal’s “principle” versus “principal” typo made the rush all the more obvious and suspect. He noted that there is a simultaneous legislative effort in Tennessee to shrink the board from 27 members to 11, eliminating faculty seats and potentially concentrating the power of board leaders and the system president in the near future. 

Gina Stafford, a system spokesperson, said in statement Monday that the proposed changes will be considered by the board at its March meeting and are subject to further tweaking until then.

Tennessee is just the latest state to propose changes to tenure policies at its public universities. A proposal under consideration by the University of Arkansas System would expand terminable offenses for faculty members, to include being uncollegial.

“Virtually all faculty around the state remain opposed to the changes recommended by the university lawyers,” said Joshua Silverstein, a professor of law at the Arkansas system’s Little Rock campus who has been vocal in his opposition to the proposal, referring to the current draft of the policy. With a Board of Trustees vote also tentatively planned for March, he said, those against the changes “need to make their voices heard now.”

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