Tenure: Under Fire, But Hunkered Down

If you're on the academic career track, chances are you hope to be tenured some day. But will tenure still exist by the time you make it that far? Tenure is under attack, having been criticized by business-oriented administrators as inefficient and by women as inequitable. As a result, 39 states reportedly are considering policies that would introduce or intensify review of tenured-faculty performance. Tenure has lost ground in some areas, but the institution itself is holding fast.

This is the first of a series of reports that aims to keep you informed of tenure-related developments. Stay tuned to Next Wave's Career Development Center over the coming months for more news and updates.

* Last September a Boston University committee released to faculty a report proposing several measures aimed at improving tenured-faculty performance. The committee was charged by Provost Dennis Berkey with addressing "rising public concern" about the economic efficiency of the tenure system. The committee's recommendations called for regular post-tenure performance review; faculty members who fail to perform could end up with increased teaching loads or be reduced to part-time status. The report's most controversial recommendation--that professors would be required to be on campus at least 4 days per week--has been widely panned by BU faculty. ... This and the report's other recommendations remain under discussion within the university.

* In January of this year, University of Missouri system administrators approved a complex, system-wide policy requiring tenured faculty to undergo ongoing evaluation and a comprehensive performance review every 5 years. Professors whose performance is found inadequate for 3 of the 5 years of the review period are subject to further review and, ultimately, dismissal.

* In March, University of Minnesota officials reported to a committee of the Board of Regents the results of the first round of post-tenure faculty performance reviews. Eight of 835 faculty members reviewed so far were found to be "under-performing." Three of the eight have agreed to participate in a plan designed to improve their performance, two have been reassigned or had their workload changed, and one has retired. The other two were later dropped from the list. Three other professors may have retired to avoid review. Professors on the list who fail to improve are subject to a second round of review by a committee of peers that could recommend dismissal.

* In May, Shirley Tilghman, molecular biologist, National Academy member, feminist, and frequent advocate of the interests of young scientists, was appointed president of Princeton University (see the recent story in Science; online subscription required). In a 1993 New York Times Op-Ed piece, Tilghman called for the abolition of tenure, labeling it a "dirty trick," and "no friend to women." Tilghman argued that, coming as it does during a woman's peak child-bearing and child-rearing years, tenure discriminates against women. Tilghman now supports tenure, but says she favors a review of the tenure process. "Academic freedom is inviolate, inviolate," she said in a recent New York Times interview. "What I would challenge is whether in fact the current process by which we go through tenure review is inviolate, or whether, in fact, like all the things we do that are built on tradition, there are times when it is worthwhile to reflect on whether it is a perfect system. I suspect that there is nothing that is perfect."

* Also last month, Northeastern University's faculty senate rejected a revision of the Northeastern faculty handbook that would have subjected tenured professors to a process of post-tenure review. The new policies would have allowed the dismissal of tenured professors who, after receiving unsatisfactory evaluations 2 straight years, failed to improve their performance during the following 2 years. Performance was to be reviewed in three areas: teaching; "scholarship, research and creative activity"; and service. The proposal came from a seven-member committee of faculty and administrators to address "senior faculty nonperformance." In place of the rejected proposal, the faculty senate voted to create a committee to look into nonpunitive approaches to "post-tenure faculty development."

* And finally, after 3 years of bargaining, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education agreed in May to a contract with the faculties of nine state universities that leaves tenure in place. The board had sought the elimination of tenure, but was rebuffed by the faculty. The new contract includes provisions for post-tenure review but leaves unaffected existing procedures for the removal of tenured faculty members.

So, what are your views on tenure? What about post-tenure review? Does the same institution that assures the intellectual freedom of senior faculty--tenure--compromise it in junior faculty? What is the significance of Shirley Tilghman's appointment at Princeton? What's happening at your institution? Join our Forum and share your thoughts with your peers.

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