Tenure Changes Ahead

The Board of Regents for all 26 University System of Georgia institutions says it wants to make posttenure review better, but professors say it’s really weakening tenure by subverting due process.

October 13, 2021
 
United Campus Workers of Georgia/Jennifer Morgan Flory
Professors protest tenure policy changes outside the University System of Georgia Board of Regents meeting Tuesday.

The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents is poised to pass changes to the system’s posttenure review policy today -- changes that professors across the state say will weaken tenure, not strengthen it.

Most significantly, the proposal effectively separates the posttenure review process from the system’s existing faculty dismissal policy and its due process protections.

Poor performance could eventually get a tenured professor fired under the current, faculty-led posttenure review policy. But the board’s proposal makes that outcome easier to achieve, by putting more power in the hands of administrators and less in the hands of the professor’s faculty peers.

A regents’ committee unanimously approved the changes Tuesday, ahead of a full board vote. In so doing, the committee and Tristan Denley, the system’s chief academic officer, noted that the final policy proposal reflects faculty feedback.

“There has certainly been a substantial amount of comments and input, which has been extraordinarily helpful,” Denley said during the regents’ academic affairs committee meeting.

“We made important adjustments to the language to clarify and address those kinds of concerns.”

Yet professors across the state disagree that their voices have been heard and say that most changes to the final document are superficial. Dozens of these professors gathered outside the first day of the board’s two-day meeting to make their point one more time.

“The point of tenure is to make clear that faculty do not work for the regents,” Janet Murray, Ivan Allen College Dean’s Professor in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech, said, addressing her colleagues at the protest. “They work for the public good, and their responsibility is to create knowledge and teach the next generation.”

Others professors held signs with slogans such as “Job security promotes student success,” “Protect truth, defend tenure” and, “BOR: Who peer-reviews you?”

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Referencing one sign saying, “No tenure, no talent,” Murray said during her speech, “Tenure in name only will make it impossible to hire the best and the brightest and the most risk-taking innovators.”

The in-person protest followed a storm of faculty resolutions and other missives that professors have sent to the regents and system administrators since early last month. That’s when the board published a series of proposed changes to tenure, applicable to all 26 system institutions.

Professors had been expecting some changes to the system’s posttenure review process, given that a committee of administrators and faculty members had been working to draft recommendations to improve that process for a year. But the posttenure review committee’s recommendations were published over the summer, when many faculty members were off campus, and the board’s proposed recommendations for changing tenure went beyond what the posttenure review committee recommended.

Regarding the draft policy that the board published in September, faculty members were most opposed to a clause saying that professors may be separated from the university for reasons “other than cause.” Professors took this to mean that they could be fired for any reason or no reason at all, tenured or not.

Teresa MacCartney, the system’s acting chancellor, eventually said that such language had been stricken from the policy proposal, to better reflect its true intent: enhancing the posttenure review process.

The final version of the policy proposal includes a few more updates, including that when a professor fails to complete a performance improvement plan following a posttenure review, the relevant department chair and dean will consult with “the committee of faculty colleagues” before making disciplinary recommendations to the campus administration.

The first version of the policy said the dean and chair would confer with “appropriate faculty” before making disciplinary recommendations, up to termination. The new committee reference is arguably less vague, except that the policy doesn’t say anything else about such a committee.

Matthew Boedy, professor of English at the University of North Georgia and chair of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said that “tenure and due process die on Wednesday” if the full vote happens. That’s because a reference to the committee “in no way mirrors the detailed due process” of the current, faculty-led posttenure review, he said.

Professors have other lingering objections, including a new “student success” category on which professors will be evaluated, beyond the traditional areas of teaching, research and service.

In limited public comments about the policy, the system has said that its posttenure review process hasn’t really been updated since 1996. The changes are meant to help professors develop throughout their careers, it has said.

One common criticism of the tenure system, typically voiced from outside academe, is that it makes it too hard to get rid of the “deadwood” employees that, say, businesses can easily cut. Yet even some 100 professors at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business say they’re opposed to the regents’ plan. In a letter to the board and MacCartney, the chancellor, these professors urged regents to press pause and gather more faculty input, lest the matter “severely diminish our ability to attract and retain world-class scholars.”

Heather Pincock, associate professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University and a member of the United Campus Workers of Georgia, which organized Tuesday’s rally, said the system’s supposed concessions to faculty concerns just show it “seeks to open a path for terminating faculty via posttenure review that falls outside the existing due process mechanisms of the grounds for dismissal policy.”

The national AAUP on Tuesday warned the board that a vote to adopt the changes will result in an investigation, “given the severity and scope of this potential attack on tenure and academic freedom.” One possible consequence of such an investigation is censure by the AAUP.

Boedy said in an email said that this is “the strongest hammer the AAUP can bring, and the national office is bringing it in our defense. The long-term implications to both the changes to tenure and censure will be significant.”

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