Having Their Say -- and Then Some

Trustees at Florida Atlantic want to play a role -- maybe a big one -- in the faculty tenure process. The faculty union thinks that's unwarranted -- and dangerous.

May 17, 2021
 
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The Board of Trustees at Florida Atlantic University wants to have ultimate say on who gets tenure there and who doesn’t.

Currently, the trustees have no role in the tenure process. While it's not unusual for trustees elsewhere to have some role in the tenure process, professors at Florida Atlantic are concerned about how much control the board appears to want, and why.

“We really see this as a threat to academic freedom,” said Nicole Morse, an assistant professor of communication and media studies and second vice president of the campus faculty union. “They’re looking to go from having no role to having a very invasive oversight role.”

Again, it's common for governing boards to have a role in the tenure process, even at other public universities in Florida. But in most places, their vote constitutes a rubber stamp on a recommendation that has been approved by layers of faculty reviewers, followed by senior administrators. This is because trustees are not typically academics themselves, meaning they're not expert in what constitutes a strong tenure case. At public institutions, in particular, trustees may be political appointees.

This is the case at Florida Atlantic, where the 13-member board includes six trustees appointed by the Florida governor. Five other members are appointed by the state university system’s Board of Governors. The student body president and the president of the University Faculty Senate also serve.

According to the proposed regulations, the university president would retain final say in negative tenure decisions. But the board would have final say on positive recommendations, for both tenure-track candidates and those tenured upon appointment.

“A short bio of the candidate(s) and such other information as the board may request will be provided to the board along with the recommendations of the provost and president,” the proposal says. “The board’s decision to approve or deny the grant of tenure will constitute final action of the university, and the candidate will be notified in writing by the president or provost.”

‘I’m Concerned About Tenure’

Beyond the proposed regulations themselves, which the faculty union has called dangerously “ambiguous,” faculty members point to comments made by board members at a recent meeting.

Trustee Barbara Feingold, for instance, at that meeting argued that the draft policy didn't go far enough.

“One paragraph doesn’t tell us a lot about a professor, about his viewpoints, about his research, about his political affiliations or potential donations, about peer reviews, public information, student reviews,” she said. “A reason that a tenured professor left one position to come and apply for another one.”

Feingold said that she was speaking for herself and Republican governor Ron DeSantis, who appointed her to the board this year to succeed her husband, Jeffrey P. Feingold, who left the board after two terms. “I’m concerned about tenure moving forward, I just am in general,” she said. “I just can’t think of any other position out there that people have a job for life.”

Feingold also referenced (without naming) James Tracy, a former professor at Florida Atlantic who spread conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school shooting and who was eventually fired for failing to complete paperwork about his outside activities.

“I don’t want to be part of a situation where we do an up-down vote and it comes back to haunt us,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful and maybe we need to set some kind of precedent here. Some of us have been appointed by this governor and past governors all with a certain belief system. I won’t want to go against that system. It’s my belief system, too.”

Other trustees said there was room for some flexibility as to how information about candidates could be presented to the board.

The policy is now out for public comment for 30 days.

Florida Atlantic did not respond to a request for comment about the policy change.

Earlier this year, Florida legislators approved a policy saying that students may record their professors with the intent of filing a complaint about them to their respective universities. The bill is now awaiting approval from DeSantis. Faculty members saw that, among other legislative efforts targeting faculty members, as additional threats to their academic freedom.

For Morse and other faculty members, these perceived attacks on the faculty don’t make sense. For one, Morse said, Florida Atlantic has a robust posttenure review policy, meaning that professors are not in fact entitled to a job for life.

Beyond misconceptions about what tenure is and isn’t, Morse also said that “this feels so shortsighted. We are constantly hearing that Florida’s higher ed system is one of the best in the country, and that’s because we have some really great faculty. But it's hard to imagine being able to attract and keep those excellent faculty if they're going to be facing these conditions.”

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