Some Thoughts on Post-Tenure Review

Nick Gier, Professor of Philosophy, President, Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO

Revised version appeared in the Idaho Statesman (Oct. 22, 2000).

In the late 1970s the State Board of Education instituted a post-tenure review policy in which all Idaho faculty would be reviewed at five year intervals after the granting of tenure. In 1979 Homer Ferguson, a UI professor of biological science, was singled out for a second stage review with the prospect of dismissal. Ferguson came to the AFT for help, and as his teaching was satisfactory and his research program was very strong, we strongly suspected abuse of administrative discretion.

As the Ferguson case was unfolding, Lee Eckhart, a UI professor of law, analyzed the tenure review policy and concluded that it posed a threat to Idaho faculty tenure rights. Under law tenure is considered a property right and it involves a presumption of competence for the life-time of the tenured faculty member. Tenure can be removed only if charges of moral turpitude, professional incompetence, or a felony crime can be proved. Eckhart argued that the five-year reviews undermined tenure rights and essentially reduced tenure to a renewable five-year contract.

Ferguson was not fired and he settled his case out of court. Subsequently, the State Board revised its policy such that the five-year review was not automatic but had to be triggered through a set procedure. The revised policy also contains a proviso that the administration assumes the burden of proof in any charge brought against a faculty member. A UI committee recently proposed that we return to reviewing everyone every five years, but it sweetened the policy with provisions for faculty development and promotion to ranks above full professor for meritorious faculty.

The post-tenure review committee is now working on revisions that focus on improving faculty performance rather than reviewing tenure status. We approve of these efforts and also pleased to learn that the idea of super professorial ranks has been dropped. These revisions, however, will be meaningless as long as the basic elements of the current policy remain. We therefore urge the committee not to use it as the basis for its new proposals; rather, it should be deleted in its entirety.

This demand would have seemed extreme even to some of us until we experienced the policy in action in the College of Art and Architecture. In January of this year the Department of Architecture voted to review two tenured faculty members. The result went overwhelmingly against one professor, but the vote was so confused that he did not know who was voting or whether the ballot box was secure. Furthermore, some faculty admitted afterwards that they were not entirely sure what they were voting about. (It is possible that some UI faculty do not realize that a career hangs in the balance in a decision such as this?) Finally, the charges made against this person clearly shifted the burden of proof to him.

With regard to the Athorough review,@ as it is called in the UI Faculty-Staff Handbook 3320 C-2c, the language is very revealing and shows how unworkable the current policy is. On the one hand, it states that the procedures for the thorough review are the same as for the granting of tenure; but on the other, it declares that the burden of proof of unsatisfactory performance rests with the administration. The policy essentially requires professors to retenure themselves, and it is clear that they would feel that the proof of their continued competence rests squarely on their shoulders.

UI Provost Brian Pitcher claims that we must return to reviewing all faculty because our accrediting agency requires that we do this. Washington State University is reviewed by the same accreditation board, but it does not require any post-tenure reviews. We have checked with our WSU colleagues and they have not heard anything about a threat to their accreditation and their faculty senate has no plans to discuss the issue.

We should abolish the current review policy and make sure that our administrators do the mandatory annual reviews properly. We should develop new procedures to handle problems with tenured faculty. The only real threat is to our tenure rightsBBthe ultimate protection we have to teach and do research without political or societal pressure.