The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: July 21, 1995
Section: Personal & Professional
By Denise K. Magner
Critics say that tenure means professors have a job for life, no matter how little they do or how poorly they do it.
Faculty members say their work is judged all the time: They jump through hoops to win tenure and again when they seek promotion to full professor. Many are evaluated annually when raises are awarded, and they are reviewed every time they write a book or teach a course.
But a growing number of colleges have decided that those critiques are not enough. They are moving to re-evaluate the performance of tenured professors every few years.
Many campus administrators are convinced that such "post-tenure reviews" are the best way to demonstrate accountability to the public and defend the tradition of tenure from those who see it as mere job security. Ideally, they say, the reviews would identify the difficulties of floundering professors and help good faculty members perform even better.
"It's not a re-tenuring process, and it's not a de-tenuring process," says Albert J. Simone, president of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who has proposed a system of post-tenure review there. "It's a faculty-evaluation-and-development process."
He hopes to persuade faculty members to buy into the notion during the coming academic year. "Some faculty are so outstanding you just stay out of their way," he says. "Most others could improve in one way or another. Let's recognize that, and start out with a positive program of development of everyone's talent. But to do that, you need evaluation."
Professors say they aren't afraid of evaluation. They just question the need for more of it. Some dismiss the reviews as time-consuming paperwork in a superficial attempt to appease critics.
Others say the reviews pose a serious threat to tenure. To have administrators question the direction or progress of a tenured professor's work would be "dangerous," says Thomas Lightfoot, an associate professor of art at R.I.T. "The academic process is not like producing widgets. It's absolutely necessary to have periods of quiescence, periods of incubation, that to the outside observer appear to be wastes of time."
But advocates of post-tenure review say that if done properly, it will strengthen tenure.
"If we want tenure, we need a viable defense of it, and part of that is policing our own shop," says R. Eugene Rice, director of the Forum on Faculty Roles and Rewards at the American Association for Higher Education. "If we go to the extreme to defend incompetence, it's going to undermine the viability of tenure over the long haul."
Joining R.I.T. in considering this new layer of evaluation are Colorado State University, the Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Virginia. The University of Maryland and the 34 campuses of the University System of Georgia have just approved the idea. Post-tenure reviews already are under way at the Universities of Colorado, Hawaii, and Wisconsin, among other places.
The concept varies from campus to campus. Typically, it involves the comprehensive review, once every five years, of a tenured professor's teaching, research, and service activities. In a given year, a fifth of the tenured faculty would be evaluated. A committee of colleagues or the department head would conduct the review.
Some institutions use the evaluations merely to determine if faculty members are meeting a minimum standard. Others are more ambitious. They use the reviews to look at professors' past performance and future goals.
A few institutions have been doing such reviews for years. But administrators say the need has grown in the 1990s. Institutions have had less money for merit-pay increases, so annual performance reviews--often criticized as perfunctory, anyway--have become an ineffective tool to motivate faculty members. In addition, the elimination of a mandatory retirement age for professors has prompted colleges to look for other ways to keep tabs on senior professors.
"What sometimes develops is a conspiracy of silence about some faculty members' chronically poor performance," says Richard Edwards, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, where post-tenure reviews will be conducted for the first time this fall. Now, he says, such behavior "will, in fact, be noticed."
Economic necessity is driving many to support the idea, Mr. Edwards says. When budgets are stagnant, "a non-performing professor becomes not simply old Fred down the hall who doesn't help out much, but someone who is holding back your department."
Kentucky's approach to post-tenure review, adopted in March 1994, is unusual in that it is not mandatory for everyone. Only those professors who receive consistently low ratings on their biennial merit reviews must undergo a more intense evaluation at Kentucky. If serious deficiencies are found, a "professional development" plan is devised to help the professor.
"What we're saying is, Let's not make the mistake of using up lots of faculty time doing paperwork exercises to review tenured faculty who are doing fine," Mr. Edwards says.
Kentucky expects that only five of its 350 faculty members will undergo post-tenure reviews this academic year. But the policy has already had some effect on faculty performance, according to Mr. Edwards.
"We've had people who have retired because of the expectation that they would be subject to a post-tenure review. We've had people who have voluntarily increased their teaching load, again as a consequence that they would be subject to an involuntary review of their research work."
Most institutions seem to be leaning toward requiring all tenured professors to be reviewed.
The point is not just to reform bad professors, it's also to recognize and assist good ones, says Raymond Nelson, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia, where faculty members are debating post-tenure reviews.
"We're letting people go too long unpromoted, or unsupported in important work," says Mr. Nelson. The reviews, he adds, "will provide an occasion for roses as well as brickbats."
Some advocates of post-tenure review worry that too much emphasis will be placed on patting faculty members on the back. The danger is that the reviews will be so much window-dressing, they say.
The American Association for Higher Education has begun a two-year project aimed at re-examining tenure and the faculty career. It includes a study of the effectiveness of post-tenure reviews.
So far, institutions with post-tenure reviews have reported mixed results. A survey of professors and administrators at the University of Colorado, where such reviews have been done since 1982, found that most felt they were "fair but of little value," according to an article in the fall-1994 issue of The Review of Higher Education. There was no follow-up after a review identified areas where a professor needed to improve, it said.
The Review article focused on the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which has had a better experience than Colorado's. The Hawaii campus began reviewing its tenured professors in 1987. If a review finds deficiencies in a faculty member's performance, a plan is created to outline how that person should correct the problems. In the first six years of the program, 618 professors were evaluated, or 58 per cent of the faculty. From 1987-88 to 1991-92, 72 of them were found deficient. By June 1993, 28 had improved and were no longer considered deficient. Nineteen had retired, and one had died. The other 24 were still working to meet the goals of their plans at the time of the article. At Hawaii, the Review said, "post-tenure review was never envisioned as a punitive program. The objective was to enhance faculty vitality, not to create resentment."
But on many campuses, the suggestion that tenured professors should be evaluated more intensely has created resentment.
At Virginia, the opposition to post-tenure reviews has been noisy. Professors there are evaluated annually by their department heads for merit raises. If something is wrong with the current evaluation system, faculty critics say, then fix it, but don't add another layer of bureaucracy.
Melvyn P. Leffler says the annual reviews that he conducted as chairman of the history department at Virginia were careful assessments and not at all perfunctory. He is stepping down from that post next month but will remain a professor of history.
"There are occasions, very small in number, when a professor who has been at the university for a long time is not doing what he or she should be doing," says Mr. Leffler. "And because of the nature of close personal relations in a department, it's very difficult for a chair to tell the person that they are not doing the job."
Very difficult--but not impossible. Rather than create another review process, deans and chairmen need to do what they get paid to do, and deal with a weak faculty member, he says. "I think the solution here is worse than the problem."
Mr. Leffler and others believe that the debate about post-tenure reviews is really a debate about the value of tenure itself. They agree the tenure system has some disadvantages. For example, it puts a premium on scholars' productivity early in their careers. And the demise of mandatory retirement means that some professors stay on longer than they should.
"I would be more than happy to get into a thoughtful discussion of the tenure system," Mr. Leffler says, "but let's get at it directly."
At Rochester, 350 faculty members have signed a petition opposing post-tenure review.
"Tenure is such a big hurdle," says Bruce L. Oliver, an accounting professor and chairman of R.I.T.'s Faculty Council. "There's some concern that tenure doesn't really mean the same if you go through post-tenure reviews every five years. It becomes like five-year contracts."
Mr. Lightfoot, the art professor, agrees. "All the evidence shows that faculty, in general, do not decline in their productivity after tenure, or with age."
Better to live with a little deadwood on the faculty, he says, than to weaken a valuable tradition.