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University System of Georgia

Professors within the University System of Georgia continue to fight for stricter COVID-19 prevention policies, but another, perhaps longer-term struggle is brewing: the system’s Board of Regents is poised to change the terms of tenure, in ways that gut the concept, professors say. 

The system is “seeking to obliterate tenure,” said Janet Murray, Ivan Allen College Dean’s Professor in literature, media and communication at Georgia Institute of Technology and one of many faculty members opposed to the changes. “The agenda of USG is clear -- to create a short-cut to firing tenured professors outside of the established and totally adequate processes, which are more deliberative, and in the control of local institutions. USG wants to take power away from its constituent colleges and exercise it themselves.”

The proposed revisions, which would apply to every public four-year college in Georgia, were introduced just hours before the board’s September meeting, with the note that they’ll be considered for approval at the board’s Oct.12-13 meeting. Faculty members were taken off guard. While the university system has been rethinking post-tenure faculty review, which tenured professors currently complete every five years, the scope and severity of the board’s proposals go beyond what many had expected. Some of the changes aren’t about post-tenure review at all.

Beyond Cause

To many professors, the most alarming proposal is that a faculty member may not only be separated from the university for clear cause, but also reasons “other than for cause," pursuant to other board policies. “Such other policies shall not be governed by or subject to the following policies on Grounds for Removal and Procedures for Dismissal,” the proposed change also says. 

This language is obtuse, but the board’s intent isn’t, according to a cautionary analysis that the national American Association of University Professors’ academic freedom, tenure and governance arm sent to the Georgia conference of the AAUP: the board wants to make it much easier to fire professors.

“The doorway opened by the new language is a wide one,” the national AAUP wrote. “If any institution of higher education can dismiss any faculty members without affordance of due process for unspecified reasons -- as long as those reasons are not among the listed grounds for dismissal -- then the system of tenure and the academic freedom it is designated to protect are severely compromised, as are the appointment security and academic freedom of non-tenured faculty members.” 

John Colton, professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and chair of its AAUP chapter, said that the changes seems to “completely eliminate any due process” and violate the AAUP’s long-standing statement on tenure and academic freedom. 

“Faculty members receive tenure because of their dedication to their jobs and the quality of their work as evidenced through evaluation of their peers,” he said. “Faculty members who receive tenure are dedicated, they do not change their working hours upon receiving tenure. Long hours and hard work are part of their whole being.”

Tenure, Colton continued, is also a “social contract between faculty and universities,” in that in return for a “long-term, protected relationship, faculty forgo higher pay and better benefits in industry, dedicating themselves to their students, colleagues and universities.” 

Another set of proposed changes makes the traditional faculty evaluation triad of teaching, research and service into tetrad, introducing the concept of a “student success activities” as a distinct fourth category by which professors will be assessed annually, in post-tenure reviews and for tenure and promotion purposes. 

Yet another set of changes says that even as the board has delegated authority for tenure decisions to institution presidents, the board may claim this authority from any institution judged to be “insufficiently rigorous in its enacted of faculty review processes.” That’s until “institutional processes have been remediated.” 

Another Tenure Review?

Regarding post-tenure review process itself, the board’s proposed changes say that it will happen at least every five years. Regarding disciplinary action for failure to advance or complete a performance improvement plan, the proposal says “the institution’s imposition of remedial action will not be governed by or subject to” the board’s policy on grounds and procedures for removal. Possible consequences of not completing the performance plan include salary reduction, loss of tenure and termination.

Proposed policy:  If the faculty member successfully completes the performance improvement plan, then the faculty member’s next post-tenure review will take place on the regular five-year schedule. If the faculty member fails to make sufficient progress in performance as outlined in the performance improvement plan (or refuses to engage reasonably in the process) as determined by the department chair and dean after considering feedback from the appropriate group of faculty colleagues, then the institution shall take appropriate remedial action corresponding to the seriousness and nature of the faculty member’s deficiencies. The President will make the final determination on behalf of the institution regarding appropriate remedial action. An aggrieved faculty member may seek discretionary review of the institution’s final decision pursuant to the Board Policy on Applications for Discretionary Review. Remedial actions may include, but are not necessarily limited to, suspension of pay, salary reduction, revocation of tenure, and separation from employment. The institution must give the faculty member notice of the possibility of such remedial actions when the performance improvement plan begins. The determined remedial action will be imposed in accordance with the guidelines provided by the Chancellor or the Chancellor’s designee(s) as well as the institution’s 20 COAA AGENDA September 9, 2021 post-tenure review policies. The institution’s imposition of such remedial action will not be governed by or subject to the Board Policy on Grounds for Removal or Procedures for Dismissal. Each institution shall also develop and implement procedures to conduct post-tenure reviews with tenured faculty members who hold administrative positions. These procedures shall address the distinctive nature of administrators’ work and leadership roles, include constituent feedback, and reflect that tenure is held in faculty positions not in administrative positions. Each institution shall compile and submit an annual report on post-tenure review activity to the Chancellor or the Chancellor’s designee(s).

Current board policy says that when "deficiencies are identified, the faculty member’s supervisor(s) and faculty member will work together to develop a formal plan for faculty development that includes clearly defined and specific goals or outcomes, an outline of activities to be undertaken, a timetable, and an agreed-upon monitoring strategy." Only after three years of insufficient progress may a professor be "subject to dismissal for cause (regular, independent dismissal processes will apply)."

The AAUP said in its letter that this change, though slightly less undermining of tenure than the dismissal for reasons other than cause provision, was nevertheless “extraordinary.” 

If adopted, this change “would tend significantly to undermine academic freedom and tenure in the USG system,” according to the national AAUP. “While it cannot be said to do away with tenure entirely, it certainly moves in that direction by making it possible to dismiss a tenured faculty member -- without affordance of academic due process -- for failing to fulfill the terms of an imposed performance improvement plan, as determined by an administrator, not a body of peers.” 

Tenure without procedural protections, the AAUP said, is “tenure is name only.” 

Colton said that, as of now, post-tenure review is a faculty-led process about faculty development, not punishment, that “works quite well.” The proposed changes make it a “reevaluation” of tenure, though, he said, and “mix it” with current annual, administrative evaluations of faculty members.  

The university system said in a statement that higher education has experienced “tremendous change” and that its post-tenure review process has “remained largely unchanged” since 1996, when it was first adopted by the board. A working group of system faculty members and administrators has been working since 2020 to rework the process, the board said, and presented its suggestions in August. 

Many of the proposed changes are recommended in that working group's report. But nowhere does the report mention possible dismissal for reasons other than cause. 

Ultimately, the system said, “The goal of these changes is to support tenured faculty’s career development as well as ensure accountability and continued strong performance from faculty members after they have achieved tenure.” 

Asked to define the new student success activities faculty evaluation criterion, the system said that “student success remains a top priority for the university system, and this process intends to strengthen that commitment among faculty throughout their career, including after they attain tenure. Students enrolled at our institutions learn from some of the best faculty and researchers in the nation, and the addition of the student success category recognizes ways in which faculty deepen student learning and engagement through activities both inside and outside the classroom.” 

Seeming to address the controversy surrounding the scope of these changes, the statement said, “We continue to engage with faculty and leadership at our campuses to gather feedback about the proposed changes, and based on those comments, are developing ways to modify the language to more clearly convey the originally intended meaning.” 

Murray said that post-tenure review “should never be connected to processes for dismissal,” and that the system is really seeking to create a world in “which they can overrule tenure decisions if they decide they are not rigorous enough, and fire faculty if they are not obedient enough” to system policies. 

Yet the system is “questionably qualified and their recent decisions have been politically motivated,” she said, calling its ban on mask mandates, which is lockstep with Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s own stance -- among other COVID-19 policies -- “reckless.” 

Trust Issues

What other “ill-considered but politically expedient policies can we expect them to enact and demand obedience to on penalty of dismissal?” Murray asked.

Peter Lindsay, a professor of philosophy and political science at Georgia State University, recently published an op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticizing board members’ lack of higher education backgrounds and therefore their ability to run a 26-institution system effectively. The piece mainly objected to the board’s handling of COVID-19, which he said didn’t reflect the scientific evidence or a sense of ethics. But Lindsay wrote that the pandemic, while “pressing,” is “just one example of how the regents’ policies ignore the very standards that academics work so hard to develop -- one example, that is, of how little understanding that body has of the institutions it governs.”

Lindsay said via telephone, “I’ve been at Georgia State 20 years I've never seen faculty as active and participatory as I have here,” recently, he said. “I think the board was in people’s line of vision because of COVID, and I think that when these other things hit, it was like, ‘Oh my god.’” 

Matthew Boedy, professor of English at the University of North Georgia, chair of the Georgia AAUP, and a member of the state university system’s Faculty Council of Faculty Senate chairs, said that tenure is a “fundamental part of any successful higher education system” that protects academic freedom, “which is under attack from external and now internal threats.”

Tenure and academic freedom together are “the bedrock for any school to maintain its mission of education and research,” he also said. “Georgia is jeopardizing its stance as a leader in higher education.” 

Murray agreed, saying it’s “going to be very hard to recruit the best out-of-state students and innovative faculty to Georgia colleges given the public incompetence of the Board of Regents and the leadership of the USG.”

Some 660 faculty members have already signed a petition against the changes and it seems that the university system is listening to them -- to a degree. Boedy said late Sunday that he'd heard from Teresa MacCartney, the system's acting chancellor, who indicated that the separation for reasons other than cause provision was being reworked. 

"As you point out, the words of the text matter," MacCartney wrote in a memo to Boedy. "We have modified the proposed language to clearly articulate the intent of that sentence." The policy revision in question now says, "Such removals for cause shall be governed by the following policies on Grounds for Removal and Procedures for Dismissal. Remedial actions taken as part of the post-tenure review process shall not be governed by these policies on Grounds for Removal and Procedures for Dismissal, but rather shall be governed by the Board Policy on Post-Tenure Review."

MacCartney added, "I hope this response helps clarify both the ways in which the system as a whole has been involved in the creation of the proposed changes to faculty review, and also how ongoing dialogue and feedback is continuing to help USG refine the policy language to more clearly convey the working group’s recommendations."

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