For The Record

Public college tenure changes headed for vote despite professor protests

By: - October 12, 2021 6:25 pm

A group of professors held signs on the Georgia Tech campus as regents met to discuss changes to state tenure review. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Georgia’s tenured public college professors could soon face more scrutiny if they want to keep their titles, but some professors say planned changes to the state’s post-tenure review system will cause talented academics to look for jobs in other states.

A Georgia Board of Regents committee Tuesday unanimously approved changes to the way the state’s approximately 7,500 tenured professors are evaluated. The full board is set to vote Wednesday.

About 50 professors and allies waving signs protested outside the meeting, which was held on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, said they want the regents to leave the state’s tenure system alone.

Under the proposed changes, a faculty member who is found not to be meeting expectations in two subsequent annual reviews or a post-tenure review, which takes place every five years, will receive an improvement plan from their supervisors. If the professor does not meet the requirements of the plan, “the institution shall take appropriate remedial action corresponding to the seriousness and nature of the faculty member’s deficiencies.”

The university president will have the final say on that action, which could include “suspension of pay, salary reduction, revocation of tenure, and  separation from employment.”

The changes also give the regents power to take over tenure decisions from a university if it determines they are not rigorous enough in their review process.

The changes are necessary to update language that was written 25 years ago and to promote faculty career development, said the university system’s Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer Tristan Denley.

Former Chancellor Steve Wrigley created a working group to reexamine the tenure rules last September, Denley said.

“What’s clear from the work of the working group was that we really needed to create a process which was much more effective at being able to build faculty careers across a lifetime,” he said. “But the process was, I think, generally considered to be sort of onerous, time-consuming with really very little benefit. And so creating a new, clear process that really enabled institutions to provide the support that faculty need across their careers was an extraordinarily important piece.”

The process included comments from over 900 faculty members, Denley said, and the university system has also incorporated public feedback since the changes were introduced.

Language that seemed to allow for professors to be terminated without cause was struck, Denley said, and language stating that faculty would have a say in creating an institution’s policy and be a part of the process for reviewing professors who are being considered for punishment.

The version of the revisions the regents will vote on will explicitly state that faculty will play a role in creating the policy and judging their peers, said Regent Erin Hames.

“Our committee today and the full board will vote on these proposed policy changes, but then there’s much work to be done at the campus level that will be part of that shared governance structure and faculty will be involved in terms of individual procedures on each campus,” she said.

Tensions have been high this semester between professors and system leaders as some teachers want to require masks in their classrooms, but the state will not allow them to do anything more than strongly encourage them.

Tuesday’s protesters represented at least eight schools, including private universities that would not be affected by the regents’ decision, said Kennesaw State University associate professor of conflict management Heather Pincock.

For Pincock, changing the system will make Georgia’s schools less attractive to job-hunting researchers, who may decide they could work in other states without as much oversight.

“The key thing here is that by weakening (tenure), it discourages talented faculty from coming to work here in the public system in Georgia because it will mean they may not be able to research the things they want, they may not be able to pursue the research agenda they want,” she said. “That means faculty with great research and grant money are going to leave, they’re going to not accept jobs here. That is going to hurt the reputation of the universities in Georgia.”

Kennesaw State American studies professor Rebecca Hill said she’s worried that giving the unelected regents the final say on tenure would open the process up to politics. Georgia governors appoint the members of the Board of Regents.

“The Board of Regents, who are not academic experts, are not classroom teachers, are trying to create a rule which would allow them to supplant the people who are experts in reviewing faculty, to allow them to say, ‘Oh, your review wasn’t rigorous enough, so we’re going to review you instead.’ So if the BOR doesn’t believe climate change is real, then they could say, ‘Well, we don’t think your review is rigorous enough, even though the scientists in that person’s department said this person doing research on climate change is doing good work,” she said. “That’s the level of politicization of the decisions that this proposed change could make happen.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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