After a long time in the weeds, higher education has become a major public issue for a host of reasons: cost, politicization of faculty and students, cancel culture and (the elephant in the room) tenure, to name just a few. Because tenure has become a subject of general debate, I am not confining this piece to friends and clients in higher education.
Covid 19 has been cruel to higher education – to students, faculty, administrators and to the institutions themselves. Colleges and universities that are tuition-dependent – which means most institutions in America, faced uncertainty about the potential drop in entering classes, higher attrition rates, large expenditures for a virtually overnight switch to remote teaching and learning and uncertainty about the intellectual loss to students from exclusive remote learning. Overall, both the cost to higher education and the revenue drop have been huge.
Most higher-ed institutions engaged in very large cost reductions. Many eliminated staff, untenured faculty, numerous programs (along with the associated tenured professors) and the like. The reaction of the faculty was fear, outrage, a condemnation of the “corporatization” of the academy and a general feeling that it was an attack on tenure. And it certainly resulted in an attack on tenure if tenure is viewed as lifetime employment absent seriously bad conduct. One professor commented on the new rules adopted by the Georgia Board of Regents referred to below by saying “The point of tenure is to make clear that faculty do not work for the regents…. They work for the public good, and their responsibility is to create knowledge and teach the next generation.”
On the other side of the ledger, the reaction of many presidents and boards of trustees has been that tenure is a significant impediment to both dealing with financial crises and adjusting the curriculum to a fast-changing world and student desires to be prepared to get a good job and to succeed at it. On October 13th the Athens Banner Herald reported that “The University System of Georgia Board of Regents Wednesday approved controversial changes in tenure policies at 25 of the system’s 26 colleges and universities despite opposition from many professors… The new system … permits professors to be dismissed if they fail to take corrective steps following two, consecutive subpar [peer] reviews.” The effect of the change is to shift more of the power of dismissal of underperforming tenured professors from the faculty to the administration.
Tenure presents a complex and nuanced set of issues, but I would like to deal with only one aspect in this piece – post-tenure peer review.
The terminal degree, in most cases a doctoral degree, is almost always a prerequisite to tenure. It is viewed by most faculty members as the key sorting “gate” for serious academics, but a doctoral degree is by no means the only requirement for tenure. There is usually an elaborate, multilevel review process of a very thick compendium of research, scholarship and publication, a summary of teaching experience and a summary of service to the institution. Often the scholarship is the subject of invited comments by senior academics from other universities and colleges. The process begins with a recommendation by a candidate’s department and school, and many institutions require concurrence by a broader group of academics within the university or college. Institutions vary as to whether the primary emphasis is on teaching or scholarship. Although the final stage is a recommendation from the Provost or President to the Board, which alone has the power to confer tenure, as a practical matter it is unusual for the faculty recommendation not to be followed.
That process is often the last time faculty members are evaluated, except when they are up for promotion to Associate and Full Professor. The evaluations in those cases are shorter and less rigorous and often promotion to full professor comes relatively early in an academic career. Moreover, a professor who is satisfied being at the Associate Professor level has little pressure to change or become a more productive scholar or better teacher.
Moving beyond research and scholarship to teaching and course conduct, in most of higher education, there is no periodic post-tenure evaluation of the quality of teaching other than evaluations by students at the end of each course. While there is a faculty approval procedure for new courses, there is usually no formal review to determine whether a course that has been taught for many years reflects advances in the field unless a department chair chooses to take on that burden. The need for keeping up with current trends is self-evident in the STEM disciplines and the social sciences, but even in pure Humanities courses, both fresh thinking and the increasing use of technology mean that teaching the same course for 20 years or more is often not appropriate. Discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the application of DNA analysis to fossils can dramatically change our understanding of events millennia in the past.
Also important, in those disciplines which students select because they believe they will prepare them to both get and succeed at professional jobs, there is little or no ongoing dialogue between the academy and the profession about the usefulness of the curriculum - accounting, finance, marketing, and psychology are a few obvious examples. Technology is becoming more and more important in virtually every arts and science discipline, and an institution that graduates students without exposure to and an understanding of the role of technology in those disciplines is doing a disservice to those students.
Professors have a host of reasons why post-tenure peer review is not necessary and, in any case, will not work. In the “not necessary” category is the notion that the object of a liberal education is to teach critical and independent thinking and expose students to the vast kaleidoscope of human knowledge in the arts and sciences. While those are clearly critical elements of undergraduate education, it is also true that the majority of students (and their families) want to be prepared to be successful after graduation and cannot afford graduate school. Moreover, this answer does not deal with the importance of peer review in promoting research and knowledge-creation. Nor does it deal with effectiveness as a teacher.
Most of those reasons why it “will not work” come down to a reluctance on the part of faculty to criticize their peers, even though they all know the identity of their unproductive and out-of-date peers and those who are inadequate in the classroom. Ironically, criticism of those who deserve it is seen as also threatening to the autonomy of the good performers. (“If it could happen to her, it could happen to me. Better to stay fully protected.”) That answer to the desirability of periodic peer review of scholarship, course content and classroom performance presents a dilemma: review by one’s peers is ineffective and review by administrators is anathema and inadequate because of lack of knowledge and experience in scholarship and teaching. So many, perhaps most, faculty members oppose post-tenure peer review.
Some institutions circumvent this dilemma with visiting committees. Those committees do an intensive review of a department or a program and are often composed of trustees, administrators, faculty and faculty members from other institutions. That can be an effective antidote to petrification of the curriculum and faculty. But it is time-consuming and expensive, both in dollars and in time of the members of the department or program being “visited.”
The first step to other solutions should be agreement on the standards of teaching, scholarship and course content among the tenured faculty in the department or program – that is, what are the criteria by which compliance with those standards should be assessed – perhaps with a central faculty committee granting final approval to the standards. Then the department or program should experiment with different methods of assessing whether those standards have been met and compare them to what is being essayed at other comparable institutions. Finally, the experience of similar groups of departments or programs should be pooled to give each the benefit of what the others have learned. And of course, the administration must provide the necessary resources to make the procedure effective. One hopes that this process, or some variant of it, will be a catalyst for even better performance and curricula.
 “Tenure Changes Ahead,” by Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, October 13, 2021.