Georgia state universities weaken tenure protections

Move bolsters fears of political attacks on US higher education and prompts AAUP to consider boycott

October 14, 2021
Athens, Georgia - August 27, 2021 A student wearing a protective face mask walks through the Arch at the entrance to the University of Georgia's historic North Campus.
Source: iStock

The governing board of higher education in the US state of Georgia, surrounded by faculty protesters, voted to expand its systems for removing tenured professors over alleged job performance concerns.

The Georgia Board of Regents said it took the action – covering 7,500 tenured professors at 25 public campuses in Georgia – to help its faculty improve and to let institutions shed those who do not.

Opponents, however, listed concerns that included the regents citing the relatively few tenured faculty fired under existing processes, and the regents’ initial proposal to allow removals for reasons not specified.

The changes create a process where tenured faculty at Georgia’s public institutions could be fired if they have poor ratings in two consecutive annual reviews and then fail to fulfil corrective requirements.

Georgia’s existing tenure rules allowed the firing of tenured faculty only for a specific cause affirmed through review by their colleagues.

The changes will help “ensure accountability and continued strong performance from faculty members after they have achieved tenure”, the regents said in a statement.

Dozens of academic staff from the 26-institution system, however, protested outside the board meeting at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, warning that the action raised the threat of political interference.

They were backed by 1,500 signers of a petition opposing the move, created by one of the state’s most prominent Democratic politicians, and by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which threatened to call for an academic boycott of the Georgia system.

The possibility of imposing censure, the AAUP said, reflects “the severity and scope of this potential attack on tenure and academic freedom”.

With its move, Georgia has joined several states – largely in politically conservative regions of the US – that have created or toughened systems for post-tenure review.

The chief academic officer at the University System of Georgia, Tristan Denley, denied any political intent, saying the action was motivated solely by a desire to improve staff performance.

But the faculty protesters in Atlanta, and others experts, have warned that the moves reflect a broader attempt by conservatives to restrict the teaching of ideas they find objectionable, such as the aggressive pursuit of racial equality.

The president of Georgia’s state AAUP conference, Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, said some of the 19 regents clearly showed ideological opposition to the ideals of higher education.

Other regents, however, might be interested primarily in helping university leaders demonstrate to politicians that they are exercising strong accountability, Dr Boedy told Times Higher Education. To that extent, he said, “this attack on tenure is coming from within the house”.

The Georgia changes come as the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina faces pressure to revise its own authority over faculty appointments. That follows the North Carolina board’s controversial hesitancy to endorse tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer prizewinning advocate of racial understanding who eventually gave up and took a position at Howard University.

Some 600 people – largely alumni, faculty, staff and students at UNC – have formed a Coalition for Carolina lobby group that hopes to protect the university from partisan interference.

Separately, the AAUP issued the results of a nationwide survey of campus leaders that it described as painting a picture of growing concern for the ideal of scholars having a meaningful role in shared institutional governance.

Among its findings, the survey showed that nearly a quarter of four-year US institutions with a faculty council deny voting rights to their growing numbers of contingent instructors. The share of institutions that allow all faculty full governance participation has declined by 5 percentage points since 2001, the AAUP said.

The new process in Georgia gives university presidents final authority over any punitive action, while leaving the regents the right to intervene. The changes also create a component that rates faculty on their non-classroom interactions with students, such as mentoring and advising.

Among those condemning the move were Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s 2018 election for governor as the first black female gubernatorial nominee of any major US political party.

Writing on Twitter, Ms Abrams accused the University System of Georgia of compounding its mistakes in not requiring vaccinations or masks for students this autumn semester. “Georgia cannot compete for talent or produce innovation if we undermine our public universities,” she wrote.

The AAUP has several dozen US institutions on its censure list, which generally urges faculty to refrain from accepting any appointments at them. It cited a previous action over tenure involving the Virginia Community College System. That lasted 28 years until 2003, when the Virginia system adopted a policy presuming the indefinite retention of its professors after six years of service.

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