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I often hear complaints from legislators, the press, the general public, and even other provosts that it is difficult to hold tenured faculty accountable for all the jobs they agreed to do when they sought tenure: teach well, conduct path-breaking research, and bring the results of their research to the wider community through extension and outreach. I believe faculty members can be held accountable – and that doing so will strengthen the tenure system..

While my colleagues do not suggest we eliminate tenure, many outside the academy do. Yet, when administered well, tenure serves a very important societal purpose. The best faculty members are often working on research that pushes the boundaries of knowledge and challenges established orthodoxy. Sometimes faculty members are mocked by their own colleagues for the generation of novel ideas that challenge such orthodoxies.

An excellent recent example is my esteemed colleague, Danny Shechtman (of Iowa State University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology), who discovered quasi-crystals and won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that discovery. Yet, for years Professor Shechtman was shunned by other researchers who did not believe that quasi-crystals could exist, primarily because two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling disbelieved the revolutionary work. Tenure allowed Schechtman to persevere until proof of his discovery had been verified.

Even the American Association of University Professors, in its statement on tenure, recognizes that tenure is not a right. Tenure carries a responsibility to contribute fully to the life of a university. The challenge is to use tenure wisely to foster the creation of new knowledge, while also enforcing an ethic of responsibility that each faculty member contributes fully to the college or university where she or he works.

Over the past five and a half years, while serving as executive vice president and provost at Iowa State, I had the privilege of working with the Iowa State Faculty Senate,  a body that understands that tenure comes with responsibility. During that period, we negotiated three substantial policy changes that are described in detail below. But first, I need to describe a policy change that predated my tenure, but set the stage for the recent shifts.

More than 10 years ago, the Faculty Senate began a process of transforming faculty responsibility by creating a new tool, the Position Responsibility Statement (see section, and by redefining scholarship to include the Boyer model, broadly defined. According to the model, scholarship may be disseminated through traditional refereed journal articles and books, but also through textbooks and course materials, refereed conference proceedings, extension publications, and juried artistic productions. The scholarship of teaching and learning and the scholarship of professional practice were elevated to equal status with the scholarship of discovery. The main criterion was demonstrated progress toward an established national or international reputation in the candidate’s field of scholarship.

The PRS has developed over the past decade into a negotiated contract between a faculty member and his or her department chair and must be signed by both to be in effect. Disagreements go to a departmental mediation process that can be appealed up to the president. The contract can be renegotiated annually, but usually stands for a number of years. The PRS has allowed for differences among faculty members regarding teaching loads and courses taught, research/scholarly expectations, and service or extension/outreach expectations, mutually agreed-upon between faculty members and their respective department chairs. In addition, it has evolved to specify expectations for faculty in expensive fields to eventually fund their own research through grants.

Faculty accountability has become dependent on adequately fulfilling the terms of each faculty member’s PRS contract. By the 2012 promotion and tenure season, faculty were being granted tenure with PRS terms ranging from 80 percent of their time spent on research with high expectations for research output and external funding to 80 percent teaching with high expectations for quality of teaching, number of courses taught and students advised, and research output of high quality but lower quantity than a typical faculty member. Faculty have been denied tenure because they have not fulfilled the terms they agreed to.

The recent set of policies evolved in part in response to the economic downturn that started in 2008 and ended with a cumulative 25 percent decline in state funding. The faculty leadership, working with me and the provost office team, came to the realization that programs might have to be closed as state funding declined and student interests changed. They also realized that tenured faculty who were not fulfilling the terms of their PRSs should not continue to enjoy the privileges of tenure, especially in light of the challenging economic environment.

What about faculty performing excellently on all their responsibilities — research, teaching, extension or outreach, and service? I offered to support a special salary increase for faculty who were performing at superior levels after a post-tenure review if the Faculty Senate would support strengthening post-tenure review outcomes for colleagues performing below expectations. From 2010 to 2012 the Faculty Senate passed three new or significantly revised policies:

  • Termination of appointment due to elimination of academic programs.
  • A strengthened post-tenure review policy, requiring oversight by deans and the provost and allowing for special recognition for superior performance in all aspects of a candidate’s PRS and mandating improvement plans for performance below expectations in any aspect of a candidate’s PRS.
  • Unacceptable performance of duty as a faculty conduct violation subject to sanctions up to and including termination.

The termination of appointment due to elimination of academic programs policy requires the faculty senate, the president, and the board to first approve the elimination of a program, which may be a degree program within a department or an entire department. Approval triggers the formation of a faculty senate committee to determine which faculty members are associated with the program. The policy then calls for making a good-faith effort to relocate faculty to other departments or programs first. Any faculty members who cannot be appropriately relocated are then given one-year termination notices, regardless of rank or tenure. Tenure contracts at some universities require that all untenured faculty members be terminated first. The ISU policy recognizes that junior faculty may be better able to change direction and join other programs than more senior tenured faculty members. It is a major step in the direction of better faculty accountability.

The revised post-tenure review policy, which went into effect for the 2012 promotion and tenure cycle, requires that every tenured faculty member undergo a post-tenure review at least once every seven years. While post-tenure review has been a requirement since 1999, the previous policy did not require that a department send its results to the dean and provost and did not allow for any enforceable consequences for poor performance. This is no longer the case.

The new policy starts with the PRS and asks the departmental committee to review each faculty member’s performance relative to the expectations set out in her or his PRS. Each aspect of the PRS (teaching, research/scholarship, service, extension/outreach, and/or professional practice) is reviewed separately and evaluated as: 1) superior; 2) meeting expectations; or 3) below expectations.

A faculty member demonstrating superior performance in all aspects of his or her PRS may be recommended to the dean and provost for an overall superior post-tenure review performance. Full professors deemed superior receive a special salary increase that is half the salary increase associated with promotion to full professor. Associate professors deemed superior are presumed to be ready for submission for promotion to full professor the following year. A faculty member performing below expectations on any aspect of his or her PRS is required to develop an action plan and show improvement within 2 years. A faculty member demonstrating below expectations on all or the most important aspects of his or her PRS may be subject to a finding of unacceptable performance of duty if adequate improvement is not made.

The unacceptable performance of duty policy, which went into effect July 1, 2011, considers faculty performance relative to the PRS as a matter of faculty conduct. On the basis of either annual reviews resulting in evaluations of performance below expectations or a below-expectations post-tenure review, a department chair may recommend to the dean that a formal charge of unacceptable performance of duty be brought.

Faculty conduct cases begin with the formation, jointly by the president of the Faculty Senate and the provost, of a faculty review committee. The review committee investigates the charges and makes a recommendation to the provost. Recommendations can range from a finding that unacceptable performance of duty is not warranted to a major sanction.

A minor sanction may result in a letter of reprimand, training, or loss of pay. A major sanction may result in termination. If the review committee and the provost agree there is no finding of unacceptable performance of duty, that recommendation is documented and the proceedings stop.  The faculty member is counseled on any action plan that might be warranted. If the review committee and the provost agree that a finding of unacceptable performance of duty is warranted, the next step is the formation of a major sanctions committee of peers that re-examines the case and makes a recommendation, which can range from no sanction to termination.

A major sanction requires concurrence of both the president and the provost. All outcomes can be appealed all the way to the Board of Regents. If the review committee recommends a finding of unacceptable performance of duty, but the provost disagrees, the process stops. If the review committee does not recommend a finding of unacceptable performance of duty, but the provost disagrees, the next step is still a sanctions committee of peers.

While this process may seem cumbersome, removal of tenure is serious business, requiring the highest level of due process and respect for the rights of a faculty member who has previously been granted tenure. Readers can legitimately ask at this point whether any of these new policies actually work to enforce faculty accountability. The following data from the 2012 post-tenure review cycle, the first under the new policy, provide initial evidence regarding the new policies.

Of the 82 scheduled post-tenure reviews, 81 (99 percent) were completed on time. The results were:

  • 4 = below expectations (5 percent)
  • 59 = meeting expectations (73 percent)
  • 16 = superior (20 percent)
  • 2 = postponed (2 percent)

I recommend that provosts, presidents, and faculty leaders read the policies and contact the Iowa State faculty leaders who developed and brought these policies through the system for assistance in developing policies that result in real faculty accountability. Micheal Owen, professor of agronomy, was Faculty Senate president when the post-tenure review and unacceptable performance of duty policies were passed. Steve Freeman, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, was Faculty Senate president last year (2011-12). Suzanne Hendrich, University Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is the current Faculty Senate president.

To summarize, it is possible to hold tenured professors accountable, as long as responsibilities are clearly spelled out and reviews are carried out with careful attention to due process.

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