The New Post-Tenure Review

May 2, 2014

Post-tenure review is viewed by many professors with skepticism. To some, it seems like an attack on tenure; to others, a waste of time. And recent announcements by two colleges, Ball State and Suffolk Universities, that they’re considering adopting post-tenure review policies that could in some cases lead to dismissal have brought out those skeptics.

But at another college, administrators say they're hoping to shore up an existing post-tenure review policy not in an attempt to weed out the bad professors, but to make the good ones better. So Westmont College’s newly mandatory, peer-led reviews for full professors raise the question: Can post-tenure review win faculty backing?

Mark Sargent, Westmont’s provost, says yes.

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“One principle that I think is important in thinking about full professor reviews is to think of them as something that’s designed to be enriching for anyone who goes through it,” he said, “rather than something that’s designed to be a bureaucratic competency check for all faculty members.”

Sargent said that means the process has to be faculty-driven. Luckily for him, even before his arrival at the college two years ago, Westmont had in its faculty handbook a periodic peer-review policy for “accountability of full professors.”

The policy was formerly enforced on a voluntary basis. Sargent is making it mandatory, starting next year.

The policy says that after a faculty member becomes a full professor, he or she will participate every six years in a “structured process of discussion, reflection, evaluation and future goals.” The purpose of the process, Westmont says, “is to encourage ongoing personal and professional development in all areas of service to the college.” The review process involves meeting with the provost and an individual written reflection component, but it hinges on work with a mutual mentoring group that meets on its own throughout the semester. This is not a system for getting rid of tenured professors.

Previously, the faculty Professional Development Committee has assigned full professors who volunteer for review to groups of three to five. At each mentoring meeting, professors are supposed to share with peers how they’ve developed as teachers and scholars, and how their philosophies on education have evolved. They’re encouraged to explore goals, share insights, get advice and observe one another’s teaching.

There’s no prescribed place or way to meet. But Russell Smelley, professor of kinesiology, recommends “food and wine.” He completed a post-tenure review several years ago, and said the meeting over dinner followed two other meetings with his peer review group. While the initial discussions were fruitful, he said, the last helped coax the bigger “introverts” in the group out of their shells to share some of their frustrations and successes about being teachers. It helped to have a gregarious group member, an education professor, who took on the role of leader or facilitator, he added.

Smelley said that sense of camaraderie was the biggest -- and most surprising -- takeaway from the review. Rather than feeling “critiqued,” as one might expect, he said, the experience made him feel more connected to his fellow professors.That helped alleviate some of the isolation he and his peers feel after decades working long hours, often alone, at the institution.

“There is this desire to be connected to other people,” Smelley said. “You start to think that you work the hardest or that your job’s the most difficult, and you get isolated. Everybody feels that pressure as an individual, but hearing that it’s universal was helpful to me.” Smelley remembered the administrative check-in at the end of the group’s work as a “positive,” mainly because “there was no evaluative aspect to it.”

Sargent said he prepares for individual check-ins at the end of the review process by meeting with the professor’s department chair and looking at course evaluation data, among other steps. But ideally, all the hard questions about performance have been asked and answered within the group – not by him.

The provost came to Westmont, in Santa Barbara, Calif., several years ago from Gordon College in Massachusetts. There, he oversaw a similar, mandatory post-tenure review process of which faculty generally approved.

“My overall sense is that the two times I have gone through this process have both been helpful, with feedback that's been both encouraging and constructive,” Timothy R.A. Sherratt, a professor of political science and chair of Gordon’s Academic Senate, said via email. “The substantive value of the review lies in requiring me to undertake a formal, and thus intentional, consideration of my professional trajectory as a teacher/scholar/member of the college community.”

Sherratt said he couldn’t say for sure that all his colleagues felt the same way, but wouldn’t be surprised if they did. He wondered if connecting the process to pay might make it even more meaningful, but said that also would change the nature of the review.

Smelley said he believed his colleagues at Westmont were on board with making full professor reviews mandatory, but acknowledged that even voluntary reviews haven’t gone as well as his in the past (the two other review groups in his year either fizzled out or never met). He also said the dynamic of the group would have been different if one of the professors had been a poor academic or teacher. It’s possible that that might be more common when reviews go mandatory, starting next year, since presumably professors who volunteer themselves for reviews have little to hide. But Smelley also said that at a small college with a strong tenure process, those professors were few to nonexistent.

Sargent said he wouldn’t “rule out” the possibility of identifying an underperforming professor during the review process for possible administrative action, but that it’s not the point.

For most or all professors, he said, the value of review if that “all of us like to learn how to enrich what we do, and we like having affirmation about what’s going well. And for what’s maybe not going well, finding some approaches and strategies to address that.”

Russell Howell, professor of mathematics at Westmont and chair of its Academic Senate, also said his “general take” is that the faculty as a whole is fine with the new protocol.

Controversy at Other Campuses

But outside Westmont, post-tenure review remains controversial. The practice began to spread at public colleges and universities in the 1990s, and now some institutions and systems in most states require it. For many professors, including Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, it remains another administrative task with little meaning.

“It was a complete waste of time,” said Hamermesh, whose most recent review was about five years ago, and entailed filling out a “few forms.”

That said, Hamermesh said he’s not opposed to the idea entirely. While he may not have benefited from review personally, he said, the system allows administrators – who are “deluged” with annual faculty evaluation data – to really focus on a few professors each year. So it’s a price he’s willing to pay for the possibility that reviews might make the faculty better over all. A peer-review component could make it more meaningful, however, he said.

Most recently, both Ball State and Suffolk announced they were considering post-tenure review as a way to target underperforming faculty members.

At Ball State, the Board of Trustees is expected to vote by fall on a measure that would enable administrators to pursue termination of professors whose performance was unsatisfactory for two consecutive years or three years out of five, after a one-year improvement plan failed to yield results, The Star Press reported.

Via email, Joan Todd, a Ball State spokeswoman, said: “In collaboration with our governance system, we are developing a policy that addresses how to deal with a potential occurrence of unsatisfactory performance in all aspects of a faculty member’s assignment — teaching, scholarship and service. The discussions are focused on a faculty-driven process that first provides a development plan to bring performance up to the minimum standards as defined in the department. If that is unsuccessful, then more severe actions could be taken. The process is only for situations where a faculty member is not meeting the minimum expected levels of performance for multiple years. Many universities already have similar policies in place.”

David Pearson, a Ball State associate professor of exercise sciences and University Senate chair, said commenting on the policy, which is still being drafted by the university’s promotion and tenure committee, would be “putting the cart before the horse.” But he said that the policy will be “based on low performance” and will not be a "traditional" post-tenure review, in that it is just for low performers.

Suffolk, a private institution in Massachusetts, recently announced it had approved post-tenure review for all professors every five years, citing increased calls for accountability to parents and students as the reason. Those professors who failed to meet university standards for performance or demonstrate improvement could face dismissal, The Boston Globe reported.

Faculty advocates, including Charles Baker, head of the Massachusetts conference of the American Association of University Professors, immediately criticized the move. "This is destroying tenure; there’s no other word," he told the Globe. Other faculty members have signed on to a letter to administrators opposing the move.

The presidents of both Suffolk and Ball State have said the respective polices are not an attack on tenure, but rather a way of a preserving or strengthening it.

The AAUP opposes post-tenure review, saying that such periodic reviews “would bring scant benefit, would incur unacceptable costs, not only in money and time but also in dampening of creativity and of collegial relationships, and would threaten academic freedom.”

But where it exists, AAUP offers a set of minimum review standards, including that it “must not become the occasion for a wide-ranging ‘fishing expedition’ in an attempt to drudge up negative evidence.” AAUP says the process should be “developmental and supported by institutional resources for professional development or a change of professional direction.”

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