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As leaders try to make Kansas University more of a research power, professors who’ve already earned tenure will soon begin facing periodic reviews to make sure they’re still on track.
But what if professors wind up spending so much time being reviewed, or reviewing each other, that there’s little time left for them to do research in the first place?
That’s the fear some KU faculty have as the university works to meet a spring 2014 Kansas Board of Regents deadline to institute post-tenure review — a long-range look at each tenured faculty member’s productivity every five to seven years.
At a Faculty Senate meeting last month, KU Provost Jeff Vitter said post-tenure reviews could help KU show accountability and avoid “micromanaging” by state legislators.
But more importantly, he said, it would help KU keep its spot in the Association of American Universities, a prestigious national group of 60 research-heavy institutions.
“It’s the right thing,” Vitter said. “It will make KU better.”
Pushing professors and the public
One way it could do that, Vitter and others say, is by helping to develop associate professors stuck in a “holding pattern.” Those are faculty who’ve earned tenure but who aren’t making progress toward being promoted to full professors, and Vitter said there are between 100 to 200 of them at KU.
Dozens of state universities around the country have post-tenure review policies, including 22 of the 35 public institutions in the AAU, Vitter noted.
But in addition to shoring up KU’s research credentials, the policy could also send a public message, said Susan Twombly, who researches higher education as a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at KU.
“One [reason] is a response to the public - the public who thinks that faculty members get tenure, and they have easy, cushy times, and once they get tenure they stop doing any work,” Twombly said.
Faculty hold tenure dear as a protection against influence on their scholarship and, of course, as a measure of job security.
At KU, tenure guarantees that faculty can be dismissed only for adequate cause, unless a program is discontinued or a financial emergency occurs.
But at last month’s meeting where Vitter appeared to discuss the policy, faculty didn’t express worries that tenure would be undermined; instead, many of them worried the process would just suck up too much time.
“We don’t need to build a lion trap to catch a mouse,” said Allan Pasco, a distinguished professor of French and Italian, at the meeting. Faculty already undergo rigorous annual reviews, he said, and those do a good enough job keeping faculty accountable.
Striking a balance
A KU faculty committee has proposed a policy for reviews every seven years, which would not replace those annual reviews. Even with the new procedure, some faculty might not experience a post-tenure review until nearly 20 years after their hiring because of KU’s existing tenure and promotion processes.
The process would begin with a panel of other faculty in the professor’s department.
That means that, say, a biologist wouldn’t be evaluated by a music professor.
But it also means professors will have to spend time evaluating their peers. The policy has to strike a balance, said psychology professor Chris Crandall, who helped lead the committee that formed the proposed policy.
“The cost of that is that it takes real faculty time to do this,” Crandall said, “and this is not something you can dash off in a few minutes.”
The policy Crandall’s group produced will require each professor to go through a review every seven years. Several officials would sign off on each one, up to the provost. But it leaves schools and departments some leeway in determining how to conduct them.
That means it might be up to the faculty not to let things get carried away, Twombly said.
Carrots and sticks
The policy does allow a post-tenure review to end with a recommendation for dismissal for a faculty member. But Twombly says she doubts KU leaders hope to use the reviews to lead to firings; dismissals of tenured faculty can be time-consuming and lead to lawsuits.
Geraldo de Sousa, a professor of English, said he believed the process was lacking in carrots as opposed to sticks.
“There should be some kind of reward at the end after going through this,” de Sousa said.
The policy does include “recognition of achievement” as one of several possible outcomes, along with support measures such as allowing professors to shift their time and effort to fit their strengths, perhaps teaching more courses and conducting less research.
But the problem, Crandall said, is that KU can’t really commit to rewards like salary raises when it’s uncertain whether funds might be available for that in the future. But he’s taking suggestions for possible rewards, including perhaps parking spots, a dinner with the KU chancellor, or even KU basketball tickets.
Crandall said he and his committee-mates would continue to collect feedback on the policy partway through the fall. And whether or not faculty like it, a final policy is due by April 2014.
“Should we have to do it? I don’t know,” Twombly said. “Is it unreasonable to ask us to do it? I don’t think so.”