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The long and tangled journey of post-tenure review at KU

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It took two proposals, four handouts (printed on four different colors of paper) and nearly two hours for the Kansas University Faculty Senate to approve a post tenure policy yesterday.

But of course it took far more than that. The process of crafting a policy that would allow academic departments at KU to evaluate the long-term research and performance of tenured professors began earlier this year and took, by my own rough and vague estimate, thousands of man hours.

It has been a long, fraught process full of negotiations — within the committee that drafted the proposal, between the committee and faculty during townhall meetings, among Faculty Senate members, and between the Faculty Senate and the provost's office.

After yesterday's meeting, Rick Levy, a KU law professor and co-chair of the post-tenure review draft committee, said he felt "gratified" that the committee's policy won the approval of the Senate. Yet he pointed out that the draft didn't necessarily contain his own vision of what post-tenure review should be. "Ultimately I was only a proposer," he said.

The committee's policy faced a direct challenge in the form of an amended version submitted by Gerald Mikkelson, a KU professor of Russian and Eastern European studies. The actual process of post-tenure review, as a seven-year evaluation of a professor's work by a small committee of peers, was essentially the same in both drafts. But Mikkelson's draft nixed approval of the review's outcome by school deans and the provost. Essentially, Mikkelson's alternate proposal maximized the control faculty had over the post-tenure review process. Mikkelson's proposal was ultimately defeated in favor of the committee's draft.

Throughout the months-long discussion and debate over post-tenure review, many faculty members have expressed worry that tenure itself could become eroded through the review process. The committee tried to address those concerns in their revised policy draft, released in October for public consumption, by deleting most references to disciplinary consequences that could follow from post-tenure review.

Also at stake is the power faculty have through the governance process. One of the bigger issues throughout the talks has been about the destination of the policy — i.e., whether it will reside in the Faculty Senate's rule books or the provost's. Ultimately the question boils down to how much control and oversight faculty members are given over future changes to the policy.

The Senate essentially lost that battle, at least on the original front it was fought. Earlier this fall the Senate voted unanimously on a resolution that essentially said to the provost's office, "Hey, we want the policy with us." Mikkelson's draft stated outright that the post-tenure review policy would reside with the Faculty Senate. KU Provost Jeffrey Vitter's position was that the policy belonged in his office's policy library because it was a personnel matter, along with annual evaluations.

However Vitter's office did offer a compromise, negotiated with the Faculty Senate's executive committee, that would in effect give the Senate the power to approve any future changes to post-tenure review and the annual evaluation policy — something the Senate didn't have before. That compromise passed last night.

Listening to all this debate over how much power the provost should have over post-tenure review was Vitter himself. When the meeting was over, I asked him if he took any of it personally. "If I did that, I wouldn't be able to survive," he said. Not that any faculty members voiced suspicions and distrust of Vitter as a person. Rather, the debate centered around the power of his office relative to their own.

Vitter said that he, too, thinks there is room for a stronger role at the university for the Faculty Senate. The amendments passed last night give faculty governance "new power," something Vitter thought was important, he said. As a whole, he voiced pleasure over the policy-creation process — tangled as it's been at times.

"It illustrates the positive things that can happen when people work together for the common good," he said.

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