Florida Polytechnic University’s re-envisioning of a public research institution is making some radical departures from the norm, including scrapping the idea of tenure. The state’s union leaders, however, say that decision should be reversed if administrators are serious about their aspirations for the university.
Instead of tenure, faculty members “will be offered fixed term, multi-year contracts that will be renewed based on performance,” the university-to-be announced  on Tuesday.
“We want to be a leading university, and we wanted to attract faculty who think out of the box, and who are ambitious and creative,” said Ghazi Darkazalli, vice president of academic affairs. “We don’t want them to be worrying within the first five or six years whether they’re going to be tenured or not.”
The faculty contracts will last for one, three or five years, and will be renewed based on merit “rather than on a set rule within the boundaries of tenure,” Darkazalli said. He said that abandoning the tenure model means that faculty members will be less inclined to pursue the kind of “trivial publication and research” professors on the tenure track sometimes feel is required of them to succeed, and instead focus on teaching and research beneficial to their students.
The institution, formerly known as the University of South Florida Polytechnic, gained independence in 2012 after Governor Rick Scott signed into law legislation that simultaneously closed the USF satellite campus. The new university aims to become fully accredited with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools by 2016. Classes are on track to start in August 2014, when the university will offer five bachelor's and master’s degree programs.
For now, the university does not know who will teach its courses -- or what students will learn in them. The university’s Lakeland, Fla., campus is currently in the middle of construction, and over the next year, its employees will do some construction of their own. Darkazalli said the first faculty members should be announced next month, and that core group of professors will then spend the next academic year building curriculums, planning classes and discussing the process by which they will be evaluated.
“We want Florida to be a state that, when you’re thinking of high-quality polytechnic universities, you’re going to include it with the northeastern and California universities,” said Darkazalli, former president of Marian Court College in Swampscott, Mass.
To faculty leaders in the state, the idea of such a university presupposes that professors are guaranteed academic freedom and independence in significant part through tenure.
“Academic freedom and independence is necessary for high-achieving faculty to function, which is why top scholars typically refuse to go to institutions that cannot make these guarantees,” Paul M. Terry, president of the University of South Florida System chapter of the United Faculty of Florida. “Since top institutions do make such guarantees, any institution lacking them will fail to attract faculty in what is now an international marketplace.”
The union, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, represents professors at all of Florida’s 12 public universities, all but one of which have tenure. Florida Polytechnic could become the lone exception to being unionized -- unless the future faculty body at the university decides otherwise. According to Thomas Auxter, statewide president of the United Faculty of Florida, the Board of Trustee’s decision does not prevent future collective action.
“Nobody wants to be part of an institution where you’re just hiring and rehiring people at the lowest price you can get away with,” said Auxter, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Florida.
Although Darkazalli said the university’s bylaws will provide the same job security and academic freedom offered by a tenure model, Auxter said the two models cannot be considered equal as long as contract renewals are subject to performance reviews.
“I don’t think there’s any way in which you can honestly do performance evaluations that would be successful in getting results, without having some system of reversing ... arbitrary and capricious administrative actions,” Auxter said.
Darkazalli said he has not yet thought about a situation where the faculty would demand collective bargaining rights, but added that he would be fine with it. “They can do what is appropriate to them,” he said.