THE DEBATE OVER POST-TENURE REVIEW

At the 1997 Annual Meeting of the AAUP, a report entitled On Post-Tenure Review was presented that had been approved by Committee A in May, 1997, and approved for publication with an invitation for comments by the Association's Council in June, 1997. [Click here if you wish to read the AAUP report from Committee A.] Following are (a) a commentary on that report prepared by Charles J. Parrish, President of the Michigan Conference and Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and (b) a response to Professor Parrish's commentary by James Perley, national President of the AAUP:


The following commentary was published in the President's Column in the Michigan Conference Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 2 of September, 1997.

The issue of accountability in higher education has been a regular source of comment, debate and even angry invective. There are some authors, like Roger Kimball, or Dinish D'Sousa, who attack the academy as a hotbed of "tenured radicals," infecting new generations of students with the failed ideas of marxian revolution in America of the halcyon days of 1960s protest. In this view, the Woodstock generation grew up (or perhaps didn't) to become today's faculty members and are corrupting our youth. These commentators would like to hemlock on these decadents, but are prevented, in their view, by the dread institution of tenure.

Others complement these attacks on tenure by coming at it from another direction. They argue that all across the country that legislatures are demanding greater accountability from our institutions of higher education and that tenure is an impediment to an appropriate response to that attack. Academic critics, like Richard Chait, fan the flames of this controversy with regular attacks on tenure as the protector of incompetence. Some also regularly augment their professorial salaries with substantial fees for speeches to groups yearning to hear about how corrupt those awful professors are, sitting around teaching only a few hours each week and spending their ample leisure time criticizing everything sacred.

Higher education administrators have responded to the attacks on tenure and the calls for greater account

ability (vaguely defined) by pushing for programs of post-tenure review. In short, the response is, we'll go after some faculty members in order to save the situation for the rest of us. Maybe if we feed the sharks a few tasty appetizers, they won't want a main course. Of course, the reality is that there is no guarantee that those we throw over the side won't attract a lot more sharks who may tip over our shallow lifeboat to get at the rest of us.

The core premise of post-tenure review is that there is a substantial enough minority of faculty members who are so incompetent that they need to be dismissed. When told that every institution has at its disposal the legal means to dismiss incompetent faculty members, and that the AAUP standards for tenure recognize it, administrators often respond that it's too hard to make a case or it leads to too many lawsuits. A more likely explanation is that under most university's statutes administrators have the responsibility to initiate the tenure revocation process. It takes some grit to single out faculty members for tenure revocation and higher education administrators are not known for their willingness to take bold action.

These administrators, nevertheless, must deal with those outside the academy, politicians and others, who think that faculty members are a shiftless lot feeding at the public trough. Some administrators even inflame these sentiments. By pushing for instituting post-tenure review processes, administrators get themselves off the hook. They can tell the critics that they are doing something about the situation about which they are concerned and can push off the major responsibility onto the faculty to conduct these new reviews. The procedures proposed usually involve an administrator identifying low performers and initiating the faculty review, which at this stage does not carry the onus of a tenure revocation procedure. The faculty review is almost always couched in terms of remedial action, wanting to help the faculty member improve performance. Performance is almost always defined in terms of research productivity. The standards against which the faculty member's performance is to be judged by a jury of his/her peers are generally current research standards for granting tenure. Since these standards have risen steadily over the past two decades, there are many faculty members who were granted tenure long ago and might not currently meet the most stringent standards of today. Thus, many who are steady research producers and good teachers well might be candidates for post-tenure review.

The National AAUP has responded to this controversy by producing a report on post-tenure review. The report, endorsed by Committee A on Tenure, is being published for review and comment by the membership in the forthcoming issue of Academe. The report is the product of somewhat intricate national AAUP politics. President James Perley appointed a Committee on Tenure headed by Professor Wendy Roworth of the University of Rhode Island That committee was independent of Committee A, which is the traditional AAUP committee that deals with tenure. The report produced by the Roworth Committee was found to be satisfactory by Committee A. A subsequent committee was formed with representation from the Roworth Committee and Committee A to consider the differences between the two committees. That committee produced the compromise report to be published in Academe.

At the most recent National AAUP meeting in Berkeley, there was considerable confusion about the compromise report. It was first announced to the membership business meeting by President James Perley that the AAUP National Council had already adopted the report as policy. No copies of the policy were distributed at the time of the announcement. Strong protests from the floor succeeded in putting off the discussion until copies were distributed to the members. When the discussion resumed, a motion was passed that asked that the Council withdraw its approval of the report as policy and that it be published in Academe for review and comment by members across the country. The Council subsequently complied with the wishes of the business meeting.

There is a need for the report to be subjected to close inspection by the members of the AAUP. To help to begin the discussion, I offer a few observations on the report. Some of these are mine and some have been offered to me by others.

The report presents several problems. The organization of the report, with the long discussion preceding the policy recommendation, is not the most fortunate form of presentation. The summary of tbe various points of view in the discussion is broadly accurate, but not very helpful when it comes to understanding the political context that must be taken into account when responding to specific proposals for post-tenure review.

The summary of the controversy is unremarkable. It pauses at intervals to make comments about how unnecessary and inappropriate Committee A finds post-tenure review, but the result is a tepid presentation, when it should be a ringing endorsement of tenure and the principles underlying it It is remarkable that, despite the plethora of relevant studies on faculty productivity and related issues, there are no data quoted in the entire document nor any referral to these studies.

The procedural proposals, primarily found at the end of this long, and longwinded, summary have serious problems. First of all, the role of the faculty in the process is not spelled out with any precision. For example, the report states that the post-tenure review program should, "at the least, involve faculty members in their design and implementation. . ." (emphasis added) Further, that, 'The written standards and criteria by which faculty are evaluated should be developed and periodically reviewed by the faculty. The faculty should also conduct the actual review process."

There is no specification as to how the faculty members who are to perform these tasks are to be chosen. We are becoming more and more familiar with what some administrators have come to call among themselves, "snared" governance as opposed to "shared" governance. The strategic planning processes that have become so common at many universities typically bypass the academic senate in the selection of faculty representatives. Where senate leaders find themselves asked to serve on the various committees associated with the planning process, they are often selected by administrators, rather than elected by the faculty, either directly or through their academic senate.

Further, the question of how the standards, rules and procedures are to be formulated is clarified by the report's references to faculty involvement. Faculty involvement could well be through a committee selected by the administration to judge faculty members, employing procedures dictated by administrators. Such a system would hardly meet even minimal standards of peer review.

Another major problem with the recommendations is the vague reference to the procedure to which faculty members who are dissatisfied with their review have resort. The report states that, in the event of a negative outcome, "he or she should have the right to appeal the findings through a grievance procedure that offers the opportunity to correct the record."

The grievant ought to have access to a grievance procedure that puts the appeal before an independent arbitrator with the power to review the entire case, both procedurally and substantively, and to amend or reverse the decision. At many of those universities and colleges without collective bargaining contracts, grievance procedures are little more than an informal review by administrators of the case. In some cases. I have heard Wilfred Kaplan complain about this at the University of Michigan on more than one occasion, where the review in a grievance is by the very administrator against whose action it was filed.

Third, the statement that, "the standard for dismissal or severe sanction remains that of adequate cause," should be changed to "just cause." As most labor lawyers will tell you, this is a meaningful difference when you end up in court, which many of these cases may.

Overall, there is, again, not enough recognition of the politics that we face. If this statement is adopted as policy, those of us in collective bargaining units may very likely find post-tenure review on the table as we begin negotiations over our next contract, put there by our own national organization. It is too easy. The administration can merely say that they are only presenting what has been already endorsed by the national AAUP and "what is your problem with your own organization?" This statement is inaccurate, for the statement does not baldly endorse post-tenure review, but that will matter little. For those faculty who do not enjoy the protections of a collective bargaining contract, who knows what they may face.

I urge every AAUP member to read the report carefully and to transmit your thoughts and your position to your local, state and national AAUP leadership. Let us know what you think about the report. Discuss it among yourselves and with your local officers. You can write to the state office with your responses or e-mail us at MIAAUP@AOL.COM. The e-mail addresses of your state and national officers from Michigan are all listed in the masthead on page 2. They will all be happy to hear from you. This policy will be likely be on the agenda of the next National Council meeting in November, 1997.


National AAUP President James Perley prepared the following response to Charles Parrish's commentary:

Another Perspective on Post-Tenure Review

Jim Perley, President, AAUP

The last edition of the Michigan Conference Newsletter published one point of view on post-tenure review and AAUP's position on this complex and critically important subject. AAUP practice always calls for accuracy of information and fair debate when alternate views exist, and the membership should have a range of opinion available to them so they may make reasoned judgments on issues of vital importance to the Association and the profession. Thus, I wish to offer another perspective.

When I began my first term as President of the AAUP, it was becoming undeniably clear that powerful forces aimed at restructuring the academic world were at work. The goals of those working to this end were reinforced by financial constraints on higher education and by a decrease in the willingness to fund higher education at both the federal and state level. When combined with the massive workplace changes occurring in the business community, the concepts of downsizing and outsourcing became very much a part of the thinking of members of Boards of Trustees and then of administrators and their professional organizations.

It is not surprising, then, that the concept of tenure should come under increased scrutiny and that attempts would be made to weaken or even eliminate it as a core feature of higher education, or that attempts would develop to invent new procedures aimed at circumventing due process protections that inhere in tenure. It was my strong feeling, reinforced by developments since then, that tenure would be under increasingly hostile assault and that one of the forms of that attack would be the development of schemes involving post-tenure review.

As more and more higher education associations began to praise the virtues of post-tenure review and as calls for increased accountability began to be heard from those in the media and from the public at large, legislators across the country began to draft legislation that would impose the requirement for post tenure reviews -- legislation developed unilaterally and employing procedures and standards new to the academic world. In many cases these procedures would, if adopted, allow for the firing of faculty members without peer review and without access to those due process protections required by the AAUP which had become an essential feature of practice protecting the profession.

In response to these developments and because the AAUP was virtually silent on the questions raised by these developments, I asked a Task Force to study the increasingly hostile environment for tenure and to examine the phenomenon of post tenure review. That Task Force on Tenure issued a report which was sent to Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure for discussion and action. In response, Committee A appointed a subcommittee of its own members to draft a report on the recommendations for presentation to the entire Committee. Committee A discussed the report extensively in early June and adopted it unanimously. Following the adoption by Committee A, Council endorsed the statement at its meeting the following week.

The report on Post-Tenure Review, in its present form, is therefore a report based on research, analysis and thoughtful reflection by several AAUP bodies which, as anyone reading the text of the report quickly realizes, gives full space to discussion of opposing views. It is not by any stretch of the imagination "a compromise report" of two radically opposed factions as claimed. In its most important section, it forcefully concludes that post-tenure review processes, if they are developed, must adhere to AAUP standards and must honor traditional standards of due process and peer review.

The criticisms offered to readers of the Conference Newsletter are quite contradictory: the Committee A report is too longwinded, but it does not go to adequate length about matters such as the selections and composition of the peer reviewers. (These are incidental matters that are covered by other AAUP policies). What the critic of the Report regards as "longwindedness" is what gives the report its credibility and persuasiveness. It is precisely this balanced treatment of challenging issues that has historically given AAUP statements their force within the academy -- and this Report indeed, shortly after its release, persuaded administrators in Alaska to back away from a wrongheaded proposal on post-tenure review.

It might be possible to try to imagine a world in which the term "post-tenure review" did not exist. Since such a world does not exist, the AAUP can either continue to remain silent on the phenomenon and therefore not be a part of the debates which are raging and threaten to significantly affect our lives, or we can do our best to help shape emerging developments around our principles. The post-tenure review policy under discussion is a long overdue attempt to do just that. If we were to remain silent, the AAUP would not only be negligent in its duty to its members, but it would lay itself open to charges of unresponsiveness, self-interest, and unwillingness to demonstrate the commitment we profess to faculty oversight of faculty work.


Return to Home Page.