Defeating Post-Tenure Review

Maryland faculty kill plan that could have led to pay cuts for a small number of professors, after three years of negative evaluations. Students liked the idea.
March 25, 2009

Who reviews the performance of tenured faculty members? Can such reviews have teeth without interfering with the principles of tenure?

Those issues are central to discussions of post-tenure review, a process that exists in some form at many colleges and can be controversial. The University of Maryland at College Park found that out this month when the faculty considered a proposal that would have required annual reviews of tenured faculty performance, and would have allowed sanctions, including pay cuts for some professors who receive three consecutive years of negative reviews. The faculty overwhelmingly rejected the plan, seeing it as unnecessary, unfair and a diminishment of tenure.

The leading public advocates for the plan were not administrators, but students. The leaders of both the undergraduate and graduate student governments both came out strongly for the plan, saying that students are more likely to have problems with tenured than non-tenured professors. But students were not the key voting constituency here, so it's back to the drawing board for Maryland.

The Maryland proposal -- developed by a joint faculty-administrator panel -- would have worked like this: Each department would create a committee to review annually the performance of tenured faculty members. Faculty members' work would not be judged solely on the previous year, but in the context of previous work as well, so that a single "slow year" would not create problems. Two consecutive reviews that represent outstanding work could qualify professors for extra recognition in various forms.

The controversy focused in large part on the opposite case. Tenured professors whose work is found "substantially below reasonable and equitable expectations" by the departmental committee and the department chair would have to develop, with the chair, a "one-year development plan outlining goals for improvement, suggesting ways that the improvement may be accomplished, and specifying the benchmarks whereby improvement can be assessed." Only after such a plan has failed to produce results could pay be cut.

In "a very small number of cases, when prior good-faith efforts to remedy performance have failed, and when other recommendations are deemed inappropriate or not considered likely to produce positive results, the recommendation may be a reduction of a faculty member’s base salary, if the faculty member's performance has declined to such an extent as to no longer to warrant the base salary that is attached to the position. The salary reduction may be permanent or for such time as the dean (or provost) believes appropriate." Faculty members could file a grievance about such decisions -- and also at other stages of the process.

Gay Gullickson, a professor of history who spoke at a faculty meeting against the plan, said in an interview that she rejected several premises about the proposal. First, she said it was not true that there are currently no sanctions against unproductive tenured faculty members. She noted that merit salary increases (a moot issue this year, but not normally) send a real message about performance, and the lack of increases (possible under current policy) would have a real impact on a professor's standard of living. "I think we have a system that is robust enough," she said.

Second, she said that the negative impact of the new policy goes well beyond professors who might be found lacking. "I objected to spending even more time preparing material for a committee, and time serving on the committee, which would take more time away from scholarship and teaching."

Added Gullickson: "I don't think this would have made anyone a better scholar or a better teacher."

Some Maryland professors approached the American Association of University Professors to review the proposed policy and the AAUP found problems. (The AAUP does not oppose post-tenure review, but opposes any post-tenure review policies that can be seen as limiting the protections of tenure.)

B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the AAUP, said that the major problem with the Maryland proposal was that it shifted the burden of proof to tenured professors. In cases of "severe sanctions," he said -- and the AAUP considers a pay cut such a sanction -- a university administration should have the burden of demonstrating the need for some action. Setting up the system so that faculty members can challenge a decision, while giving them some rights, does not reflect the concept of job security that should be associated with tenure.

"Placing the burden on the professor undermines tenure," he said.

Privately, some faculty members said that the strong opposition to the proposal was in part due to its consideration during the economic downturn. Maryland professors are facing furloughs, salary freezes, and numerous cuts in campus programs, these professors noted, and that environment is not a good one in which to talk about a system that would add faculty duties (serving on the committees in each department) and potentially cut some professors' pay.

Student leaders have been critical of the faculty vote.

Jonathan Sachs, president of the undergraduate student government, said that in general, he appreciates the quality of teaching at Maryland. But he said that he has noticed that those without tenure "tend to be really good," while "a small percentage" of tenured professors "neglect their classrooms." Sachs said he saw the faculty vote against the review plan as "arrogance," and said that they should be "accountable" for their performance.

Anupama K. Kothari, a Ph.D. student in business and president of the Graduate Student Government, said she too was bothered by the vote. She said that when the graduate student organization hears complaints from students about problems with professors who ignore their work, take people off projects for now reason, or "abuse" them, "it is almost always about a tenured professor."

She said that graduate students feel that those without tenure are supportive, "but once they get tenure. ..."

Many graduate students were "shocked to see faculty shoot down" the proposal, Kothari said. She characterized the reviews proposed as "mild," and said that the professors' vote "made many of us suspicious of them." She added: "If you are doing a good job, why are you so scared of being reviewed?"


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