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Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Post-tenure review requirement taking shape at KU

June 23, 2013

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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.”

Comments

question4u 1 year, 5 months ago

This does seems an unnecessary and time-consuming hoop just to dispel the public notion that KU faculty can't be fired. The KU faculty handbook (available online) already requires annual reviews of "tenured and tenure-track faculty" (p. 11), and it explicitly states (p.12) that "Sustained failure of a faculty member to carry out his or her academic responsibilities...is a ground for dismissal pursuant to established procedures."

The difference seems to be that the current annual evaluations are conducted within the department according to procedures "approved by the Dean and the Provost" but the evaluation every seven years will be conducted by faculty outside the department.

How likely is it that a faculty member who has met the department's requirements for "teaching, research, and service" for seven years will suddenly be found lacking by faculty from other departments who aren't experts? If an accountant's performance is assessed yearly as satisfactory by the accounting division of a corporation, how likely is it that employees from the marketing division would find the accountant's performance to be lacking after seven years? There's a reason that corporations don't do evaluations that way. It's more efficient to have the marketing people focus on marketing strategies rather than evaluating accountants.

If I were a KU faculty member I'd probably see this as "a lion trap to catch a mouse” too.

elliottaw 1 year, 5 months ago

The accountant would be getting reviewed by other accountants

"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."

KU does have a handful of Professors that are just sitting in the middle, I know of a handful that have been here for 20+ years but are just sitting at the associate level, they need to be pressured to either go for fill or move along, they are simply just teaching their classes at this point and bringing no grant money in.

elliottaw 1 year, 5 months ago

about 90% of the faculty teach, the uniformed like to think it is the other way around. And those that are no longer teaching bring in enough grant money to pay for their position without coming from the operating budget.

yourworstnightmare 1 year, 5 months ago

"If an accountant's performance is assessed yearly as satisfactory by the accounting division of a corporation, how likely is it that employees from the marketing division would find the accountant's performance to be lacking after seven years?"

This already happens as part of normal promotion and tenure review. Current promotion and tenure requires evaluation by committees representing all disciplines in the university, but starts at the department. Are you opposed to this, because this is exactly what is proposed for post tenure review?

yourworstnightmare 1 year, 5 months ago

Tenure is a powerful and privileged position. There is not another example in all other professions of an institution such as tenure, with the possible exception of the judiciary. With such a privileged position comes great responsibility.

The problem with tenure at KU, and other universities, it two-fold. First, there is the problem of "dead wood" faculty. It is "too much trouble and effort" to impose criteria on these faculty members or to fire them under the current system. While rare, dead wood faculty cast a very bad light on tenure. Departments are often also very bad at policing their own (e.g. it is hard to negatively evaluate buddies), so outside eyes in these cases is a good idea. Post tenure review would bring these outside eyes into the process.

Second, performance standards tend to go down under the current internal department review process. This leads to two sets of standards, one set for earning tenure, which are generally quite high and rigorous, and another set for yearly post tenure evaluation, which are generally weak and require only the most minimal of efforts, if that. Standards to achieve tenure are kept relatively high by "outside eyes" in the process, whereas internal post tenure review standards slip because of lack of external evaluation.

An official post-tenure review would bring external eyes into the process and raise standards across the board. It will make it easier to deal with dead wood faculty, it will ensure that standards to retain a tenured position are equivalent to those required to receive tenure, and it will across the board raise standards and motivate faculty members to keep their performance level high.

It will require extra work from faculty members, but the effort will be worth it to achieve these goals. Tenure is an incredibly important institution, and it rings hollow when faculty members complain that it isn't worth the extra effort to ensure that tenure is a vital and strong institution that fosters excellence.

Richard Heckler 1 year, 5 months ago

The greater majority of legislators are not experts on much of anything much less how best to manage any type of educational institutions. These same faces are quite good at creating unemployment and NOT GOOD at managing tax dollars.

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