Reviews of tenured professors proposed

Trend may be aimed at ensuring accountability

Strong Hall, Kansas University

With the likely addition of a few words to a Kansas Board of Regents policy, tenured faculty members at Kansas University within the next few years will encounter a process they never have before: “post-tenure review.”

The way Board of Regents Vice Chairman Fred Logan describes it, that would mean a periodic assessment of where a tenured professor’s career is going, perhaps every five years.

“I think that post-tenure review — when it’s done by faculty and by university leaders, it’s a very affirming process for tenured professors,” Logan said. “It is a way to really improve what they’re doing.”

Logan supports a new line of policy the regents are considering that would require each state university to institute a post-tenure review procedure. He said the regents could approve it as soon as their December meeting.

Post-tenure review has been a trend in higher education in recent years, said Andrew Torrance, a KU professor of law who also serves as Faculty Senate president. He said he believes it’s partially motivated by a desire to keep faculty members accountable.

And accountability is not something most faculty are opposed to, he said, as long as it’s accomplished fairly.

“Sometimes faculty may get off track, and we think this could be an opportunity to get faculty back on track,” Torrance said.

The potential danger of a post-tenure review policy, as expressed by Torrance and other professors in two recent Faculty Senate committee meetings, is if it were to undermine the institution of tenure itself.

“If post-tenure review is meant to be punitive for the sake of being punitive, then I think it’s a very negative idea,” Torrance said.

Job security

According to KU policy, tenure guarantees that faculty can be dismissed only for adequate cause, unless a program is discontinued or a financial emergency occurs. Professors must be considered for tenure by their sixth year, and if they don’t receive tenure they must leave.

Tenure is something that must be closely guarded, Torrance said, because it protects faculty from outside influence on their research.

“Tenure actually backstops the objective search for the way the world really is,” Torrance said, “and it’s important to know that if you drop an apple, gravity pulls it down. It doesn’t send it back up.”

Logan said the concept of tenure is in no danger at regents universities.

“I don’t have any desire to weaken the institution of tenure,” Logan said.

Associate special education professor Sandra Gautt, a former KU administrator and a participant in Faculty Senate talks on the subject, said it’s important to note that tenure at KU or elsewhere does not equal guaranteed lifelong employment, as the “public myth” suggests it does.

Tenured faculty at KU already go through an annual evaluation process that Gautt said is more rigorous than what a typical private-sector employee might go through.

Logan said he envisioned post-tenure review as being conducted by a faculty member’s peers, whereas those annual reviews are conducted by a department chair or a dean overseeing the member.

KU’s “Bold Aspirations” strategic plan, released in 2011, also recommended a new review and mentoring system for faculty who’ve achieved tenure.

Mary Lee Hummert, KU’s vice provost for faculty support, said the university would be working with faculty governance leaders on putting a post-tenure review policy together, and eventually a special faculty committee will form to create a plan.

Logan, too, said he expected the faculty at the regents universities to take part in the planning process.

“I don’t see us getting that done during this school year,” Logan said. “I see it happening sometime next school year. It’s a lengthy process, I think.”

He said he did not want the regents to impose any specific policy on the subject.

Faculty input

Faculty Senate members have already begun discussing the possibility of post-tenure review in an effort to make sure their voice is heard.

During committee meetings on the subject, some faculty expressed concern that a new peer-review process — in addition to those that already occur for faculty up for tenure or a promotion — could cause professors to be so busy evaluating their coworkers that their work would be affected. Others wondered why an additional review process would be necessary when faculty are already evaluated every year.

Mohamed El-Hodiri, an economics professor, is the leader of the KU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, as well as the statewide AAUP group. He said he hoped a post-tenure review policy would include ways to reward professors who are performing well — perhaps by removing burdensome service requirements for talented researchers or teachers.

But he said he hoped the process does not discount the importance of teaching.

“We don’t want to think of teaching as a burden,” El-Hodiri said. “Teaching is what we are about.”

Hummert said that post-tenure review will indeed reward outstanding professors, and it will not focus solely on accountability. It would help faculty work toward promotion to full professor, and help them continue to develop even after they reach that point.

In the end, El-Hodiri said, a policy can be successful if it does include input from both faculty and administrators. It can’t be something handed down from above, as is the case with any university policy decision, he said.

“Ultimately it is shared governance,” El-Hodiri said. “It is not boss-employee.”