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Tenure Under the Microscope

- By Linda Creighton

Under pressure to provide more accountability to students and parents—and state legislators—schools are increasingly scrutinizing the performances of tenured faculty members.

Chances are, in the past year you've had more than one discussion about tenure—probably 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 scrutiny—or attack.

Post-tenure 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 tradition—as long as its primary objective is to enhance the faculty excellence and not to fire instructors.

By 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.

At 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 members—tenured or not—to 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.”

The 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.

Putting 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.

Positive 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.”

Jones 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 job teaching?”

And 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 post-tenure review.


Merit-Based Raises

One 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.”

More 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.

At 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.

The 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.

Dean 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.”

Watson 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 move on.”

Most 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 or service?”

Unless 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.”

At 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.

Ditto 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.”

A 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 group—until last year headed by the vice president's wife Lynne Cheney—uses incendiary language to demand a different approach to higher education and an end to what it calls “political correctness” on campuses.

The 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.”

At 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