The Fallout From Post-Tenure Review

Brian Taylor

October 17, 2002

When public universities began adopting post-tenure review in the 1990s, trustees and lawmakers hoped it would eliminate "deadwood," while faculty critics feared it would be used to punish outspoken professors.

Nearly a decade later, post-tenure review has not translated into significant firings of either lazy professors or controversial ones. But this extra layer of evaluation continues to split academics. Some credit it with single-handedly saving tenure; others suggest that it has quietly watered down faculty authority, eroded tenure, and encouraged scholars to focus on quantity over quality.

Public universities in 37 states now require some sort of performance review of tenured professors, but statistics show that the firing of tenured faculty members as a result of post-tenure reviews is extremely rare.

For example, in the five years that post-tenure review has been used at Kansas State University, only one tenured faculty member has been fired because of it, according to James R. Coffman, the university's provost.

A report on post-tenure review in the Texas State University System tells a similar story — there's been just one instance of tenure revocation since the policy was adopted in 1998. Public reports on the outcome of post-tenure review in the Arizona university system, the University of Texas System, as well as at Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, Georgia State University, and the University of Massachusetts system show that no tenured faculty members have been terminated since the process was begun on those campuses.

Furthermore, the reports suggest that the number of tenured faculty members who have received unsatisfactory ratings during their reviews is also tiny. In the Arizona university system, for example, only four faculty members out of 2,711 were rated unsatisfactory in terms of overall performance last year, while an additional 16 received negative ratings in one or more of the three areas of faculty work — teaching, research, or service.

Exaggerating the Amount of Deadwood

Just because the number of firings and unsatisfactory reviews is small does not mean that post-tenure review isn't working, campus officials say.

"Those outside the academic community who were looking for post-tenure review to be a way of dismissing a lot of faculty members had it dead wrong," says Myles Brand, president of Indiana University. "The number of faculty members who are deadwood was greatly exaggerated."

Weak professors are weeded out at tenure time, says Elizabeth Ervin, vice provost for academic personnel at the University of Arizona. "When you have a bunch of people who've been hired through nationally competitive hiring processes, and who, on top of that, have achieved tenure, you're dealing with the cream of the crop," she says, "so you wouldn't expect many of them to be horrible or even mediocre."

Besides, she says, outright dismissals are not a tradition of academic culture. Many faculty members who receive mediocre to negative reviews opt to retire or resign. But it's impossible to determine how many people have quit or retired as a result of negative reviews, since academics don't always explain their rationale for leaving, Ms. Ervin says.

Universities typically have adopted one of two systems of post-tenure review: a "periodic" approach or a "triggered" model. In a periodic system (the more common model), all tenured professors are reviewed at regular intervals — usually once every three to seven years — in addition to undergoing annual merit reviews. By contrast, in a triggered system, post-tenure review kicks in only when a faculty member receives a certain number of substandard annual reviews. Both models usually require a professor who has been found wanting to complete a development or improvement plan designed by the professor and the department chairman or the department's personnel committee. (Such plans might require a professor to publish more articles or books or attend teaching workshops or conferences.)

"From my point of view, we will have succeeded if no one is fired, but everybody is performing at a level of satisfactory" or higher, says William Plater, executive vice chancellor and dean of the faculties at Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis. "Our system, like many post-tenure-review systems, is designed to help faculty overcome problems and make corrections rather than to fire people who aren't performing."

Getting Back on Track

So, is post-tenure review helping underperforming professors get back on track?

Some of the early returns look promising. According to an annual report on post-tenure review in the Arizona university system, 16 faculty members were required to complete development plans last year. Eleven of the 16 agreed to do so. Of those 11, 9 have successfully completed development plans, 1 faculty member is still in progress, and 1 failed to complete the plan and has begun a new effort. (Of the five who declined to complete improvement plans, two left the system, one successfully appealed, and two others were either reassigned to new jobs or had their workloads adjusted.) Meanwhile, in the University of Massachusetts system, where a seventh of all tenured faculty members undergo post-tenure review each year, a report shows that 15 faculty members out of the 225 up for review last year were required to complete development plans. Nine have successfully done so, three have retired, and three continue to be monitored.

Harvey Newman says post-tenure review has helped his career.

Six years ago, when he had his first such review at Georgia State, Mr. Newman was a longtime associate professor of urban-policy studies who hadn't yet accumulated the credentials required for promotion to full professor. Georgia State was a teaching institution that was raising its research expectations, and Mr. Newman was trying to reinvent himself along with it.

At the time of his review he had 10 scholarly articles in refereed journals. He says he received a satisfactory rating, but "I didn't have a very good publication record and was, shall we say, tardy in moving in that direction. The committee was helpful in reminding me that I needed to continue to boost my research and cut back a bit on some of my service commitments so that I could be a more effective candidate for promotion to full professor." The committee gave him concrete suggestions and valuable feedback and, ultimately, helped him to turn his ship around, he says.

By the time of his second periodic review last year, Mr. Newman had 15 scholarly articles in refereed journals and a refereed book by an academic press. He'd also successfully incorporated Web-based instruction into his courses. Committee members told him they were impressed and that he was ready to go up for promotion. "It gave me validation and the clear expectation that my colleagues thought I had done what I needed to do to be promoted." And, in fact, he was promoted to full professor last year.

More Harm Than Good

In spite of stories like Mr. Newman's, some professors think post-tenure review does more harm than good. These critics say it is bad for morale and promotes popularity contests among professors.

Steven C. Wiest certainly thinks so. He has the dubious honor of being one of the few faculty members dismissed as a result of a negative review. In June 2000, he was fired from his job at Kansas State University after he received an unsatisfactory annual review, which triggered a post-tenure review. Then he received a second negative annual review after he failed to complete an improvement plan to the satisfaction of his department head. Mr. Wiest, a former horticulture professor, alleges that members of his department were out to get him because he had led the ouster of the previous department head. He says the terms of his improvement plan were unreasonable.

"In June [1998] they told me I was supposed to get a graduate student, write three grant proposals and five papers by December of the same year," he says. "Nobody in the department has ever done that!" He says he was a victim of departmental politics and unfair review practices, and he's suing the university.

"It's the kind of nightmare that you hope never happens, but then it happens to you," says Mr. Wiest, who now earns $7 an hour as a computer help-desk technician in the private sector. "Post-tenure review gives the administration the ability to basically do whatever they want to do to get rid of someone, to totally usurp the meaning of tenure."

Thomas D. Warner, head of the horticulture, forestry, and recreation-resources department at Kansas State, has refused to comment on Mr. Wiest's case, because of the pending litigation. Mr. Coffman, Kansas State's provost, also has declined to comment, except to say that the review process "was properly applied."

Saving Tenure

To its defenders, post-tenure review is not only a way of dealing with extraordinary cases, it also helps the general rank-and-file faculty members. For starters, they get to keep tenure.

"The tenure system had a perceived flaw — people thought it was employment for life, no matter what, even though it didn't always operate that way — and that made it easy for the public and legislators to criticize it," says Frank Fair, a philosophy professor at Sam Houston State University and one of the authors of a study on post-tenure review in the Texas State University System.

Post-tenure review fixes that flaw, he says, by providing a structured system of accountability. Many lawmakers and trustees seem to agree. Calls for the abolition of tenure are rarely heard these days.

"I think post-tenure review is a good trade-off because it makes the legislators who aren't involved with higher education feel that there are some stopgaps there that would take care of a problem if there is one," says State Rep. Fred Brown, a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives and vice chairman of the Texas House Higher Education Committee.

John Munger agrees. Once a strong voice in favor of ending tenure in Arizona, Mr. Munger, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents from 1992 to 2000, says he's satisfied with the post-tenure-review system in his state. "I'm not hearing the horror stories that we were getting before about not being able to remove faculty members who weren't performing."

Post-tenure review has changed tenure for the better, says Mr. Munger. "In my opinion, we did end tenure in a way. We redefined it. What we've really got is a five-year contract that's automatically renewable if you're doing your job. Now you can call that tenure if you want. I call it a renewable contract."

On some campuses, the post-tenure medicine has gone down easier because it has had money attached to it. At institutions like Georgia State, Portland State University, and the Amherst and Boston campuses of the University of Massachusetts (which share a collective-bargaining agreement), faculty members undergoing post-tenure review can apply for professional-development grants and use the money to jump-start a new project, attend a conference, or take a computer course.

For example, Ann Withorn, a professor of social policy at UMass at Boston, received about $2,000 to support her sabbatical plans — which included traveling to New Zealand to give a conference talk. At the University of South Carolina at Columbia, professors who get a superior rating receive a merit-based pay increase on top their annual raise.

Some professors say that before post-tenure review, they lived in a state of benign neglect, where there was little back and forth between them and the administration. The value of having a chance to talk with both your dean and department chairman at one time should not be underestimated, says Richard Miller, a professor of astronomy at Georgia State. He says he used his post-tenure review to make a pitch for a new faculty position in his department. "I plead guilty to turning this meeting 180 degrees around," he says. "I saw it as an opportunity. It's different when you go knocking on the dean's door to request a position; it's another if you're invited in." (Incidentally, the dean approved his request.)

Charles Caramello, chairman of the English department at the University of Maryland at College Park, says post-tenure review has even promoted a greater sense of community among academics on campus. Professors often know more about the work of scholars in their subfield on other campuses than they do about colleagues in their own departments, he says. "It's a way for faculty members to get to know their departmental colleagues and view their accomplishments," he says.

A Redundant Process

Despite such benefits, most professors remain less than thrilled about having to go through a process they consider redundant, since, in many cases, they are already subject to regular annual merit reviews. The American Association of University Professors views post-tenure review as an unnecessary intrusion, although it says it has had few complaints from faculty members that policies are being abused.

"I don't think we need any more evaluations," says one English professor at a Southern university, who asked to remain anonymous. "I think the nation is evaluation crazy. We spend a lot of time on evaluations that we could spend teaching people and doing useful things."

She and other like-minded professors at institutions with periodic reviews say they resent the extra time, effort, and paperwork imposed by an administrative policy that they see as designed for the exceptions (underperformers) rather than the rule (satisfactory or outstanding performers).

"This is a policy that's designed to be inclusive, but it's for an exclusive reason, and people take umbrage at that," says Rod Muth, chairman of the faculty assembly at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Gary D. Rosenberg, for one, says he sees few, if any, benefits from post-tenure review. "It's an annoyance and a concern, and I don't see any positive benefits to it other than placating legislators and being an image maker for the general public," says the associate professor of geology at Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis. "A university should make its image through its accomplishments, its solid achievements, not by numbers that justify faculty members' existence in terms of productivity."

Besides, he adds, if, in fact, the post-tenure-review system is working and legislators are getting performance reports on his university, that certainly hasn't translated into larger appropriations. "And isn't that one of the things that we've established this system for," he says, "so that we can convince legislators that we're doing our job and that we deserve the resources we're getting?"

The budget cuts under way in many states may further weaken support for post-tenure review among professors. Many faculty members accepted post-tenure review because it was linked to faculty-development grants. With less money available for such grants, advocates of post-tenure review say, morale may tumble and the evaluation process may not work as well as it should.

That's a concern at Appalachian State University, which is part of the University of North Carolina system. University officials hope to save money and bolster faculty morale by temporarily shelving post-tenure reviews this academic year, says Peter Petschauer, a history professor there and a member of the system's Innovations and Faculty Worklife Committee, which monitors post-tenure review. "Because of the budget crisis, faculty members are being asked to teach additional classes, and our provost thought post-tenure review would add an additional burden.

Promoting Fluff Over Substance

Critics of post-tenure review point to other ways it has changed academic culture, for the worse. Some say it promotes fluff over substance. It encourages professors "to bulk up their record" with "quickie" research activities "so that they don't have people on their back about not doing enough research," says one political-science professor who did not want to be named.

Mr. Rosenberg of Indiana-Purdue says he shares that concern. "I think it has had a sobering effect on any faculty member's decision about what scholarly research they're going to do," he says. "I've been considering writing a book or two, but I'm a slow writer-researcher and I know it would take me a minimum of two years to write a book, three years most likely, maybe even more. And in that interval, when you're not going to have other publications coming out, your publication record sinks, and who knows what chairman or dean is going to take a look at that and say you're unsatisfactory in your productivity."

He also fears that instead of protecting the principles of tenure and academic freedom, post-tenure review is eroding them.

"By setting up a committee of people to advise a faculty member who has been classified as unsatisfactory, you're essentially abridging that person's academic freedom because you're going to give that faculty member things to do," Mr. Rosenberg says. "If we have academic freedom, every single faculty member should be able to make a decision on his or her own about what directions they want to go, and they should be able to proceed in those directions and make mistakes and fall flat on their face and realize, well, this direction was not productive, so maybe I should go in another direction."

In spite of concerns like Mr. Rosenberg's, most professors say they've come to view post-tenure review as an unavoidable new reality of academic life.

"It looks like it's going to be part of the fabric of higher education for some time to come, says Mr. Muth of Colorado's Denver campus. "We might as well get used to it and figure out how to use it."