Tenure Reform: The Time Has Come

Hank Brown describes how and why the University of Colorado has taken on the issue -- and urges other colleges to follow.

March 26, 2007

Tenure is to higher education what Latin is to romance languages: essential to its fabric, not widely understood by the public and in danger of becoming anachronistic.

Yet tenure is as vital to the success of higher education as Latin is to the structure of our language. But in its current form, the age-old process of promoting and retaining quality faculty members is in danger of going the way of Olde English.

The first step toward an effective tenure system is examining and strengthening what exists. Subsequent steps should look at how it might be improved. It is imperative that we in higher education take the initiative to examine ourselves. There are many lawmakers at the state and federal level willing to intervene if we do not do so. Much of the scrutiny we are under is of our own creation. Colleges and universities have been less than forthcoming with the public and legislators about tenure, leading to the suspicion that higher education’s primary focus is protecting its own rather than guaranteeing the highly effective and productive teachers and researchers that students and taxpayers deserve.

I am president of the University of Colorado, which like many major public research systems, has struggled to ensure the centuries-old concept of tenure is relevant and effective at a competitive, contemporary university system. Our university found itself in the midst of a crisis in 2005 when a firestorm erupted over a tenured professor, Ward Churchill. Questions about tenure were a small but important part of the controversy, causing some of Colorado’s elected leaders to contemplate intervention into and oversight of tenure.

If there was a silver lining, it was that the episode galvanized faculty leaders and the Board of Regents into action. The university in March 2005 launched a comprehensive, systematic review of all its tenure-related processes, from point of hire through post-tenure review and dismissal for cause. It proved to be perhaps the most thorough tenure review effort ever undertaken at a major American university system, and the 40 recommendations adopted from the year-long process are leading to a clearer, more robust and more rigorous tenure system.

The University of Colorado’s experience may be illustrative to other institutions considering tenure reform, or at the basic level, a tenure-processes audit. While some may see the effort as a hill not worth climbing, much less dying on, the journey was worth taking for us. Here’s why. Public confidence in academic tenure, much less its understanding of the concept, is dropping. To reduce this downward trend, we must be transparent in our processes and straightforward in our explanations of why tenure is necessary and how it works. These steps are crucial to tenure’s future, just as tenure is crucial to the academy’s and America’s long-term well being and international competitiveness.

The university’s Board of Regents, after consulting faculty governance leaders, appointed an Advisory Committee on Tenure-Related Processes to conduct a thorough review of processes for awarding and maintaining tenure. Three regents, faculty from each of the university system’s campuses and a graduate student comprised the committee. A provost from one of the campuses chaired the committee. The regents were clear that they wanted an independent review they believed was critical to the integrity of the process. Retired Air Force General Howell M. Estes, III, who was well regarded in the state and familiar with complex undertakings, but who importantly had no prior experience with or opinions of tenure, was asked to lead the independent review.

The review was conducted in four phases: planning, data gathering/report writing, feedback/evaluation, and implementation. Two separate groups (internal working group and external working group) worked independently, but on parallel tracks. The internal group comprised 14 veteran faculty from across the system; a nationally known consulting firm formed the external group. The groups received the same charge but worked independently.

Four goals guided the process: to rebuild public confidence in the university’s tenure-related processes and tenure in general; to ensure students receive the best possible education by hiring, developing and maintaining a nationally acclaimed cadre of tenure track faculty; to maximize the university’s investment in its faculty; and to provide clear, understandable explanations to the public and university community on the importance of tenure and the university’s tenure-related processes.

They reviewed all tenure-related processes and how they were being implemented. The two groups conducted nearly 160 interviews with those involved with awarding tenure or conducting post-tenure review. The university’s processes were benchmarked against those at 19 peer universities and 10 schools of medicine. The external group performed a confidential audit of 95 randomly selected tenure files, the first time tenure files had been opened to independent scrutiny in the university’s history.

The internal and external groups came together for the first time to write the report in December 2005. While the separate groups came to many of the same conclusions, they also tended to fill in gaps for each other.

The report they produced noted that tenure processes do many things right. But the caveat was that they were not followed as rigorously as they need to be, either in granting tenure or in post-tenure review. The latter activity was particularly problematic. Accountability for faculty performance was lacking, documentation of individual faculty strengths and weaknesses was insufficient, and there was no meaningful system of incentives and sanctions.

New policies for junior faculty mentoring and tenure and tenure-track faculty professional development were implemented to enhance the success of faculty contributions to the university.

The university’s dismissal for cause process was also found wanting, particularly in its inability to conduct and conclude processes in a timely manner. Separately, concerns were raised about the lack of policies to address the circumstances under which tenured faculty should be removed from the classroom, especially in those situations when students are being adversely affected.

The advisory committee did a good job of recognizing and reporting on the parts of the process that need improvement. It made 40 recommendations that range from periodic audits of tenure files by external groups to shortening the dismissal for cause timeline (to less than six months; by contrast, the Churchill proceedings have taken nearly two years and are ongoing). But the process did not stop with recommendations. The advisory committee reviewed each recommendation with an eye toward practicality, budget implications and relative importance. Recommendations were labeled desirable, important or critical.

With the report in the public domain, feedback was sought from internal and external constituents. Faculty assemblies on each of the university’s three campuses weighed in, as did the public, particularly state political leaders, who had tenure on their radar screen in light of the Churchill controversy. His case proceeded under the old rules, but the shadow it cast informed changes to the process.

With a report filed and public input gathered, it would be easy to deem the process complete and get back to business as usual. This would be dangerous. Implementation is key, and if it is not accomplished effectively, all will have been for naught. An effective accountability system is imperative.

While the university’s system-wide faculty council has adopted the recommendations and changes have been made and approved into Regent Laws and Policies, it will be up to academic leadership to ensure that there are incentives in place to recognize good performance and consequences for poor performance. It’s early on in that process; each campus is busy developing specifics.

The university is working to keep the issue high on the priority list and to keep the discussion of tenure alive. Presentations about recommendations and changes have been made to faculty and academic staff across the system. A Web site is being developed to provide clear, concise definitions about tenure for internal and external audiences. The university is committed to annual reports on tenure to the public. It will publicize aggregate data on who applies and gets hired, who receives tenure and who does not, as well as summary results of post-tenure reviews. The reporting will be within the bounds of personnel rules.

The advisory committee has established several measures for what success will look like, including:

  • Routine independent audits of processes.
  • Faculty leaders’ understanding of the recommendations and commitment to them.
  • Accountability in all tenure-related processes.
  • Clear communication to the public.

The jury will be out for a while on the success of the endeavor, but early signs are positive. Faculty and academic administrators across the University of Colorado system are embracing the proposed changes, as is the Board of Regents.

The process the University of Colorado engaged in is an important first step toward ensuring tenure remains relevant and effective in tomorrow’s universities. Yet it is only the first step.

Discussions must move beyond tenure processes. We must now examine the tenure system itself, future career pathways for our increasingly diverse and mobile faculty, and standards of performance in a global academic marketplace. There may be alternative models to explore. Those discussions must involve a variety of stakeholders who focus on one key question: How do we create and maintain a rigorous and competitive tenure system that best meets the needs of our students and our publics, and best positions America for long-term success? Tomorrow’s students and the next generation of Americans deserve nothing less.


Hank Brown is president of the University of Colorado system.


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