pressure to provide more accountability to students and parentsand
state legislatorsschools are increasingly scrutinizing the performances
of tenured faculty members.
are, in the past year you've had more than one discussion about tenureprobably
a heated one. Once considered as integral a part of university life
as textbooks, tenure has become a topic of debate and friction both
on campus and off. Changes in the economy, technology, and society have
forced many colleges and universities to balance traditional practices
against practical considerations. The result is that the commitment
of lifetime employment, practiced for more than half a century on American
campuses, is coming under increasing scrutinyor attack.
review is regarded by some in the academic world as a direct assault
on tenure. But many educators now feel that post-tenure review is perhaps
the strongest weapon in the defense of that traditionas long as
its primary objective is to enhance the faculty excellence and not to
last year, over half of the states in the nation had instituted or were
considering some form of mandatory tenure review for publicly funded
institutions in an effort to tie the new accountability to funding.
At private colleges and universities, the combination of skyrocketing
tuition and the quest for excellence has resulted in the close scrutiny
of quality of teaching.
the country's top engineering schools, the explosion of new technology
and growth in the field have prompted changes aimed at improving teaching
techniques and approaches, including outreach programs that include
high school and extend all the way down to the elementary level. Such
moves may have given engineering schools a head start in assessing tenured
professors' track records as part of a larger effort of encouraging
their faculty memberstenured or notto max out their potential
without penalizing them. At Texas A&M's College of Engineering,
faculty dean Karan Watson says of their post-tenure review, We
didn't want it to be a big stick.
policies of formal evaluations go by different names and range widely
in their origin, application, and outcome. At one end of the spectrum
is the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where reviews are mandatory
and their intention largely punitive. At the other end of the spectrum
is Drexel University, with a voluntary post-tenure renewal
program that gives faculty a chance to improve their teaching skills
in a three-year program and earn a pay raise, no threat to tenure included.
a tenure review policy into place can be a nasty process. Administrators
and faculty at the University of Minnesota waged a four-year battle
over tenure review that included a faculty revolt and a near miss at
unionization. The faculty at Northeastern University, one of the first
major private universities to consider firing tenured professors, voted
down that proposal, with strong feelings remaining on many sides.
policies tailored to each institution seem to have the smoothest transitions.
Two years ago, the Pratt Engineering School at Duke University inaugurated
a salary review program that requires each faculty member to meet with
a department chair once a year to formally evaluate the teacher's performance.
Associate dean Phil Jones says, It is just a way to ensure consistency
in terms of what is rewarded and what is important.
says Duke's experience points out that even with a constructive rather
than critical approach, one-size-fits-all is a hard way to judge academics.
We're still grappling with how to weight things, says Jones.
For instance, you could have an excellent teacher who doesn't
do much research, and maybe isn't very active in university affairs.
How do you weight those different things, when he's doing such a good
the reaction of the faculty to the annual review? Very quiet.
I don't know of any impending riot, he says, although he regretfully
points out that administration is rarely included in frank chats about
of the positive outcomes for faculty is a more performance-driven distribution
of pay raises, says Jones. Previously, you had a salary pool,
and guess what? Everybody, unless they were really bad, got that x-percent
raise. I think it's easier with this new program to justify bigger raises
for some individuals.
aggressive and regular assessments can be a boon for top-performing
teachers, says Jones, while turning up the heat may force out those
who are no longer up to snuff. That would be a side benefit,
he says. There are a number of people whose productive days are
over, and they're holding a slot. At the University of Texas at
Austin, a post-tenure review system was put in place in 1997, and the
number of retirements rose from 12 for the year '94-'95 to 49 last year.
Texas A&M's College of Engineering, a mandate from state legislators
resulted in a post-tenure review policy, defined by the college on its
Web site in a single-spaced three-page document. Appended to it is a
two-page statement by the faculty senate, acknowledging the feeling
among many faculty members that the policy is unnecessary.
policy requires annual review for each tenured faculty member, with
three successive years of unsatisfactory performance resulting in a
remediation plan that lasts from one to three years. If the requirements
aren't met, tenure is gone. In the six or seven years the policy has
been in place, faculty members have been put on remediation, some have
left voluntarily, and at least one tenured faculty member was fired.
Watson says initially the faculty at Texas A&M was not happy. We
already had a process for annual review, she says. No group
likes to be told there's a whole lot of you who aren't productive.
But they also were resistant to the principle of post-tenure review,
she says. Tenure in principle doesn't guarantee you a job for
life; it just shifts the burden of responsibility to the institution
to prove there is nonperformance. Post-tenure implied that the system
wasn't working, and many people felt it was working.
says that while management in academia doesn't always intervene in situations
that need remediation, a lot of people misunderstand the environment
in which a college faculty works. We don't usually have to fire
people. If people aren't working hard, fitting into a group, they'll
of the faculty at Texas A&M are resigned to post-tenure review,
Watson says, but the chance for them to set their own definitions of
satisfactory performance and to be offered remediation as a first solution
has helped. In all of our careers, we'll go through different
phases where one thing may be emphasized over another, she says.
The concern is, do I suddenly become unsatisfactory because I
was once a researcher but am now focused on development and teaching
post-tenure review is sensitive to those concerns, Watson says that
nobody wins. If you look back a few decades, faculty members were
considered with high regard as serving an important mission. They had
tenure, but they weren't paid well. There were tradeoffs. If you get
too many of these things out of balance, no young person who is really
bright will choose this path of teaching.
the heart of tenure is academic freedom in the face of personal ideologies,
politics, or personality conflicts. The threat to that freedom seems
particularly real as Americans struggle with rights versus security
after September 11. A tenured professor with 29 years of experience
at the University of New Mexico made an off-hand comment in class endorsing
the attack on the Pentagon. His comments got national attention and
a lot of death threats, but his job was safe. That would not have been
true, he says, had he not been tenured.
for Bob Jensen, an associate professor of journalism at UT, who says
his comments asserting that the United States may bear some responsibility
for the terrorist attacks unleashed a storm of criticism. If I
were untenured and the events of this fall had transpired, he
said, I would not expect the university to ever tenure me.
recent report from the higher-education watchdog group called the American
Council of Trustees and Alumni is the type of threat that educators
are worried tenure review might represent. Compiled from news stories
and Web sites, the report lists 117 examples of what the group calls
moral equivocation, singling out professors by name. Calling
many in academe the weak link, the groupuntil last
year headed by the vice president's wife Lynne Cheneyuses incendiary
language to demand a different approach to higher education and an end
to what it calls political correctness on campuses.
American Association of University Professors has argued against post-tenure
review in the past, opposing periodic evaluations and rejecting unsatisfactory
performance as a reason to terminate tenure. But in a speech to an educational
group last year addressing that resistance, William Plater, executive
vice chancellor and dean of the faculties at Indiana University-Purdue
University-Indianapolis, suggests that it is in our self interest
to encourage such self-evaluation, pointing out that merely reporting
on the number of professors evaluated and then disciplined is not the
point. Rather, he says, We have begun to shift our thinking from
such scorekeeping to how faculty are continuing to evolve and improve
their skills and interests in order to remain relevant.
engineering schools, that may translate into exactly what most programs
have been working to craft over the last decade or more. I think
the hot topic now, and what will always be the hot topic, says
Jones of Duke, is what constitutes good performance.
Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.