Has tenure outlived its usefulness?
It is heresy inside the academy to say such a thing, but absent some serious reforms, tenure deserves to go the way of the spinning wheel and the
Ever since the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges issued the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, two truths have been deemed self-evident: that academic freedom is vital to meaningful teaching and intellectual work, and that tenure is necessary to ensure academic freedom.
But the public is not so sure.
A 2006 poll commissioned by the AAUP found that 68.7 percent of the public thinks tenure should be modified, while 13.3 percent thinks it should be eliminated altogether. In other words, 82 percent of the public thinks change is in order. In a 2007 Zogby poll, 65.3 percent of respondents agreed that “a professor who does not have tenure is more motivated to do a good job than one who does have tenure.” Those results speak to long-standing and widespread public concern that tenure protects and rewards professors who are neither effective teachers nor productive scholars. As Virginia’s 1996 Commission on the Future of Higher Education put it, “For the general public and corporate executives, tenure is about an entrenched system that is perceived to place a much higher premium on research than on teaching, that causes the institution to be inflexible rather than flexible, and that appears to ensure employment regardless of performance.” It is perhaps not surprising that the General Assembly of Virginia responded to those concerns by enacting a law requiring posttenure review at each of the state’s sixteen public campuses.
Throughout the 1990s, public criticism of tenure was loud and insistent. Worried that legislatures might move to abolish tenure at public institutions, colleges and universities across the country began implementing post-tenure review in an effort to meet the calls for accountability from trustees, legislators, and the general public. The transformation of the academy was swift. According to a 2002 legal outline prepared by former AAUP counsel Donna Euben, in 1989, only 1 percent of the Association of American Universities’ member schools had a post-tenure review policy. A 1996 survey of 1,200 four-year colleges and universities showed that 23 percent had posttenure review policies in place, while another 6 percent were devising them. By 1998, thirty states required post-tenure review at their public colleges and universities. As of 2002, thirty-seven states had implemented post-tenure review. And, while post-tenure review is predominantly a phenomenon of public colleges and universities, a good number of private institutions have implemented it as well. A 2000 Harvard study reported that 48 percent of private institutions had post-tenure review. The numbers say it all: over the last ten to fifteen years, post-tenure review has become the academic norm.
Post-tenure review was designed to keep tenure alive: it offered an accountability mechanism that would ultimately protect academic freedom. As the Virginia commission succinctly put it, “if tenure systems are to remain viable in higher education, tenure should be awarded for reasons that make sense to the general public. And tenure, once achieved, must be followed by performance reviews that have real and substantial consequences.” But, as so often happens with hastily conceived compromises, this one has been fraught with contradictions from the start. The AAUP initially opposed post-tenure review on principle, arguing in 1983 that it “would bring scant benefit, would incur unacceptable costs, not only in money and time but also in dampening of creativity and of collegial relationships, and would threaten academic freedom.” But in 1999, when it became clear that post-tenure review was here to stay, the AAUP shifted away from categorical protest and toward a tactical definition of best practices: “Post-tenure review ought to be aimed not at accountability, but at faculty development.” Colleges and universities already have procedures for disciplining and dismissing tenured faculty, the AAUP argued, and post-tenure review policies could be consistent with academic freedom only if they had no power to impose consequences on underperforming faculty. Effectively seeking to ensure that post-tenure review could not perform the accountability function with which it was charged, the AAUP’s paradoxical treatment of post-tenure review reflected—and reinforced—widespread confusion about what such policies could and should do.
That confusion translated into policies that, in the aggregate, reveal broad ambivalence and disagreement about exactly what “accountability” can and should mean within an academic institution. On one end of the spectrum, states such as New Mexico and South Carolina not only mandated post-tenure review, but also laid out the terms upon which negative reviews would lead to dismissal. On the other end, some institutions willingly implemented a post-tenure review system focused solely on career enhancement. Drexel University has a policy that makes post-tenure review entirely voluntary, does not punish anyone for poor performance, and does not seek to enforce standards. In between, all manner of schools have implemented all manner of policies. Some policies are consequential, some are developmental, some are both. Some subject all tenured faculty to review at regular five-year intervals; some reserve post-tenure review for those faculty members whose poor performance “triggers” a more comprehensive and implicitly consequential investigation; some combine periodic and triggered review; and some declare that their annual reviews constitute posttenure review. Some schools conduct post-tenure review at the department level, while others do it at the college level; some entrust department chairs to conduct post-tenure review, while others allocate that work to groups of peers. And so on. Even as post-tenure review has become standard academic practice, what its goal should be is unclear, and because of that there is no real consensus on how it ought to be done.
It follows that we also do not know very much about whether post-tenure review actually works. The AAUP’s 1999 guidelines for post-tenure review were based not on data culled from experience, but on a combination of sound principle (all policies must respect academic freedom and due process) and questionable agenda (no policy should focus on accountability). And even as schools were devising a dizzying array of post-tenure review policies, most were not keeping track of what, in practice, their policies were actually doing. “Little is known about [post-tenure review policies’] longterm effectiveness or their resource requirements,” Rochester Institute of Technology administrator Christine Licata observed in 1999. And small wonder: according to University of Virginia education professor Margaret Miller, as of 1999, only three state systems were tracking and assessing their post-tenure review processes.
The Present Situation
The situation has not improved much over time. In 2003, Blackburn College provost Jeffery Aper and then-University of Tennessee at Chattanooga administrator Judith Fry reported that 90 percent of institutions were not doing cost-benefit analyses of post-tenure review, and that only 14 percent had set up any procedure for periodically evaluating it “with respect to its effectiveness.” In the authors’ view, such a situation was to be expected: post-tenure review has “become a fact of life” in academe, but because “it seems largely to have been initiated based on external pressures, [it] has not been supported with additional resources, and has not been subject to careful analysis of the real purposes and benefits of such activities.” Aper and Fry concluded that post-tenure review, in its present aspect, had become something of a policy “orphan.” “As accountability has become a watchword in American higher education over the past two decades,” they observed, “the proliferation of evaluation and assessment policies and practices may be more symbol and signal than substantive policy integrated into the larger purposes and mission of the institution.”
Aper and Fry based their inquiry on the AAUP’s 1999 guidelines, which explicitly enjoin schools to review and adapt their policies:
Any new system of post-tenure review should initially be set up on a trial basis and, if continued, should itself be periodically evaluated with respect to its effectiveness in supporting faculty development and redressing problems of faculty performance, the time and cost of the effort required, and the degree to which in practice it has been effectively cordoned off—as it must be if it is to be constructive—from disciplinary procedures and sanctions.
One paradox of post-tenure review—as it has been implemented—is that the AAUP’s anti-accountability stance, expressed here in the final clause, has had more traction than its sound practical recommendations regarding self-assessment and cost-benefit analysis. As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted in 2002, posttenure review rarely results in negative evaluations and almost never leads to dismissal for cause. The Chronicle found that post-tenure review had led to one dismissal in five years at Kansas State University, and one in four years in the Texas State system. The article further noted that as of 2002, post-tenure review had not led to a single termination for cause in the University of Arizona system, the Texas State University system, Indiana University Bloomington, Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, Georgia State University, and the University of Massachusetts. In 2001, the University of Arizona system conducted 2,711 performance reviews; only four resulted in unsatisfactory overall performance ratings.
During the 1990s, a great many schools implemented post-tenure review hurriedly, without clearly defined goals, workable procedures, or mechanisms for review. Those policies were asked to accomplish tremendous—and potentially conflicting—goals having to do with faculty enhancement and development, on the one hand, and individual and institutional accountability, on the other. In a very real sense, the future of higher education as we know it—certainly the future of tenure—depends on the success of post-tenure review. And yet, with rare exceptions, schools are not doing the essential work of studying how their policies are implemented; of determining whether, and on what terms, they are effective; and of revising both their policies and their procedures when and as needed. They should be doing all these things as a matter of course; their failure to do so shows how problematic accountability actually is.
The little information we do have about post-tenure review suggests that the system quite readily and regularly suffers in terms of conceptualization and implementation. Take Virginia. State law requires all public colleges and universities to conduct post-tenure review. And yet a 2004 evaluation at Virginia’s sixteen public campuses found that two institutions had not conducted a single post-tenure review during the previous five years, a finding that raised questions about whether these institutions were in compliance with the law and with their own policies. Then there is Colorado, which found in the wake of the Ward Churchill affair that its post-tenure review policy, which had been in effect since 1997, had utterly failed to achieve both its developmental and its consequential goals. As then-president Hank Brown wrote, post-tenure review “was particularly problematic. Accountability for faculty performance was lacking, documentation of individual faculty strengths and weaknesses was insufficient, and there was no meaningful system of incentives and sanctions.” Colorado has since committed to regularly assessing its post-tenure review policy and practice.
A 1997 study of post-tenure review at the University of Hawaii at Manoa found similar problems with a policy that had been in effect—and had gone unexamined—since 1987. Adopted to “head off legislative interest in university personnel issues pertaining to tenured faculty,” Hawaii’s policy was poorly written and badly implemented. The study found that post-tenure review neither revitalized faculty nor removed those who were irremediable; it offered no rewards and imposed no sanctions; and while it succeeded in keeping legislators appeased, it did not actually help improve either individual careers or institutional functioning. “The lessons learned from this study of the University of Hawaii at Manoa not only serve as a wake-up call to the campus to improve the process,” the authors concluded, “but also provide evidence to other institutions that post-tenure review policies and procedures require periodic reevaluation by both faculty and central administration in order to ensure that faculty enjoy fulfilling lifetime careers while sustaining their institutions’ vitality and public accountability.”
Taken together, the findings in Virginia, Colorado, and Hawaii suggest that compliance and consistency are perennial issues, and that failure to institute systematic outcomes assessment for post-tenure review has quite predictably resulted in the institutionalization of problems. These studies provide a telling context for an astonishing fact: according to a 1999 poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, less than 6 percent of faculty members strongly agree that “post-tenure review has impacted faculty performance.”
The findings also suggest that post-tenure review has been relatively ineffective as either an incentive system or a disciplinary tool. Without adequate resources and support, post-tenure review cannot offer meaningful rewards to outstanding faculty; without strongly framed provisions for handling persistently underperforming faculty, and without equally strong disciplinary and dismissal policies to support those provisions, post-tenure review cannot realize its role as a mechanism of accountability. All it can be under such conditions is a ritualistic exercise in rubberstamping, what the Hawaii study calls “virtual” review. And while a largely inconsequential process may result from what the AAUP recommends, it is not what faculty members want. As the Hawaii study found, faculty were eager for their “toothless” post-tenure review process to incorporate both “carrots” and “sticks.”
Existing information about posttenure review suggests that the academy has responded to public calls for accountability largely with form, rather than substance. For a time, perhaps, the cosmetic adoption of a pro forma post-tenure review process worked. Legislators were satisfied, and ominous discussions about abolishing tenure were kept at bay. But today, as the AAUP and others have discovered, public faith in tenure is strikingly low. Post-tenure review has not been taken seriously by those charged with implementing it, and as a result, the policies that were hastily put into place years ago have for the most part been allowed to languish unexamined, unsupported, and unimproved. Post-tenure review has not restored public confidence in academic accountability. And while that fact should be no surprise, it should be cause for concern.
It is time to review post-tenure review. Institutions need to set clear, consistent criteria for what post-tenure review ought to do and measure whether colleges and universities live up to those criteria. From state to state, from college to university, from public institution to private, it is time to find out what schools are doing in the name of post-tenure review, and to identify—through real experience—what does and does not work. How helpful it would be for institutions to share how policy translates into practice. And how vital it is to know whether schools are successfully balancing the prerogatives of development and accountability. Only then will it be possible to say that the tenure system has begun to honor the AAUP’s foundational definition of academic freedom as a set of “duties correlative with rights.”
In a 2005 report entitled Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni called on trustees to ensure that academic hiring and promotion processes are sound and beyond reproach. It follows that trustees at both public and private institutions should strive to guarantee the integrity of tenure at their schools. If their college or university does not have a system of post-tenure review, then they should work closely with faculty and administrators to implement a rigorous policy that combines “carrots” and “sticks” and does so as a conscientious acknowledgment that academic freedom confers substantial selfregulatory responsibilities upon the professoriate. Trustees at schools that already have post-tenure review should ensure that their institutions conduct regular self-assessments to track how well the process is working and to make improvements when necessary. And, since transparency is essential to accountability, schools should publish both their post-tenure review policies and their self-assessments. Such reports can be an invaluable means of enhancing the mechanisms of self-governance and restoring public trust in academe.
The author thanks American Council of Trustees and Alumni research fellows Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black for their invaluable assistance on this article.
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