How to Fix Tenure

Most everyone agrees that tenure is in trouble. At many schools, adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty make up a majority of college teachers, and in plenty of departments they teach the majority of classes. Writers are calling into question the value of tenure, alleging that it protects research-focused and even incompetent professors to the detriment of students.

Faculty groups have objected, arguing that tenure is necessary for quality. But so far the public remains unconvinced–witness the public skepticism of the institution, to say nothing of common jokes at its expense.

In the 1990s, a wave of frustration with tenure led to the spread of post-tenure review at public universities: by 2002, 37 states had implemented some form of review. In theory, review allowed institutions to discipline and, where necessary, dismiss underperforming tenured faculty members. Post-tenure review was intended to save tenure by restoring the public’s trust, but a 2006 poll found that more than two-thirds of respondents still thought tenure should be modified.

The reason isn’t hard to find. ACTA has documented how the implementation of post-tenure review foiled its attempt at accountability. The AAUP made this shift explicit: “Post-tenure review ought to be aimed not at accountability, but at faculty development.” For the AAUP, review was to serve as job-training and enrichment, but not as a means of removing bad actors. The AAUP’s view became standard, and it became extremely uncommon for post-tenure review to lead to faculty dismissal: The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that, at the University of Arizona system, out of 2,711 post-tenure reviews, only four rated the subjects’ performance unsatisfactory.

Now, some universities are trying to reboot post-tenure review, implementing programs that will have a real impact.

One approach is to “win faculty backing”–develop a peer-driven review process that helps professors improve their teaching and research. By demonstrating to professors the value of the process, it can obtain buy-in from an entire faculty. 

But even where that approach is successful, it is not enough. Post-tenure review does not need to win faculty backing, because faculty, ultimately, will not decide the fate of tenure. If tenure is to have a future, it needs to win public backing. If faculty want the public to pay for tenure through taxes, tuition, and donations, they need to demonstrate its value to the public. And the way to do that is to ensure that the public sees post-tenure review as a true accountability tool.

The original promise of post-tenure review was that it would rejuvenate tenure’s reputation with the public by demonstrating that tenure was more than a sinecure for privileged older professors. If it is to fulfill that promise, post-tenure review must be linked to real consequences. That is why new post-tenure policies, such as the one under consideration at Ball State University, are so important. There, the trustees are moving to ensure that tenured professors with substantial, sustained performance problems improve or are removed.

Similar problems came dramatically to light at the University of Colorado several years ago. After Ward Churchill, a controversial ethnic studies professor, was dismissed for research misconduct, the Colorado legislature and the public demanded to know more about how tenure decisions are made. Colorado inaugurated a thorough investigation of its tenure system. The results are found in a chapter in The Politically Correct University written by Senator Hank Brown, John Cooney, and Michael Poliakoff. In brief: the university had strong tenure and post-tenure requirements on paper, but it did a poor job of following them, which led to the disastrous appointment and subsequent promotion of Churchill. Under Hank Brown’s presidency of the University of Colorado, it finally initiated a series of transparency reforms to ensure that the public understood how a tenure case was decided–and to ensure that cases were decided well.

Policies like these bring real accountability to the tenure system. The usual suspects, such as the AAUP, complain that we are chipping away at tenure–but the opposite is true. Real tenure- and post-tenure review is, as Ball State president Jo Ann Gora said, “a way to protect tenure” from poorly-performing faculty who bring the institution into disrepute. If faculty care about tenure, they will embrace these reforms and ensure that their departments teach and research at the highest possible level of excellence. 

Anne Neal

Anne Neal is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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