Unions concerned as Georgia pushes post-tenure review

At partisan moment, governing regents pursue new processes allowing for firing of tenured faculty

August 10, 2021
Georgia
Source: Getty

Georgia’s state university system is moving towards the adoption of a uniform and tougher post-tenure review system, in what some faculty experts regarded as yet another attempt at political interference in US higher education.

Georgia’s 26-campus system already allows for some evaluation of faculty after they’ve gained tenure, although with historically few instances of professors experiencing any major repercussions.

The system’s governing board is now taking steps to impose a more mandatory set of processes that make clear the possibility of firing tenured faculty who fail to meet standards set by statewide system leaders.

The intent wasn’t fully clear, said leaders of the American Association of University Professors. But it seemed to be part of a pattern spreading across the US in recent years, said Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, and president of Georgia’s statewide AAUP conference.

“Georgia is just following along other states, especially red states,” that have created or toughened systems for post-tenure review, Dr Boedy said. The move, he said, appeared to be “a small ripple in a larger attempt to end tenure across higher education”.

The chief academic officer at the University System of Georgia, Tristan Denley, acknowledged that system officials did feel that too few tenured professors were being removed.

“It is a possibility, as things currently stand, that faculty members who are doing an unsatisfactory job could eventually lose their jobs,” Dr Denley said. “But it’s not really a practical reality, and so I think there is a feeling that there is room for the process to have some more teeth.”

Dr Denley insisted that there was no political intent behind the tougher new rules, which include specific timelines for faculty accused of deficiencies to take corrective action. “The motivation behind the work that we’re trying to accomplish is absolutely in the spirit of continuous improvement,” he said.

But Anita Levy, a senior programme officer in the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, said that the move in Georgia came at a politically tense moment for higher education, especially with former president Donald Trump and his allies spending significant energy fighting the concept of critical race theory in American educational systems.

“Going after faculty, or faculty tenure, through post-tenure review, is another piece of that pie,” Dr Levy said.

Tenure is generally understood to provide faculty with permanent job protection, outside of any extraordinary failings, as a way of ensuring their freedom to engage in controversial topics.

But many US politicians with conservative affiliations have identified universities as hostile to their worldviews and begun finding ways to challenge their academic freedom.

One of the more aggressive examples is Florida, which is planning annual surveys of the ideology of its public university professors, and has offered legal protection to any students who secretly record their instructors.

The tenure situation, however, is more amorphous. The AAUP’s longstanding policy opposes any form of post-tenure review. “They become ways in which to re-evaluate the award of tenure, which is not what they were supposed to do in the first place,” Dr Levy said.

Yet the AAUP acknowledges that the tool has now become widespread in the US, and it instead emphasises guidelines for good quality processes.

Dr Boedy, while admitting uncertainty over the intent of Georgia’s governing regents, said he saw cause for concern in the board’s just-completed report arguing for tougher post-tenure review.

“Are these changes overshooting the mark?” he said. “I would think so.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Excellent news. All states should implement similar polices and follow the lead of Florida and Georgia.

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