Let’s Actually Reform Post-Tenure Review

Proposed changes to the UNC-System’s policy are seriously flawed.

Later this week, the UNC Board of Governors will receive recommendations to change the post-tenure review process at the 15 constituent universities that award tenure. The Board of Governors was spurred to this action by the shocking UNC-System Office report that revealed that over 97 percent of tenured faculty passed post-tenure review in the past decade, and that, in many years, the passing percentage was 100 percent at some universities. At UNC Wilmington, for example, 100 percent of the faculty passed post-tenure review from 2016 to 2019, and at UNC Greensboro, 100 percent passed post-tenure review every single year from 2013 to 2022. An earlier system report shows a 97-percent passing rate stretching back to 2005. Rather than a serious and consequential review of tenured-faculty productivity, post-tenure review at our public universities has been a rubber stamp of approval for almost two decades.

Nevertheless, while reform of the post-tenure review process in North Carolina is much needed, the proposed policy changes are terrible across the board: They fail to strengthen the post-tenure review process, squander funds on unneeded faculty compensation, and make it easy to target outspoken faculty.

While reform is much needed in North Carolina, the proposed tenure-review changes are terrible across the board.UNC faculty are typically reviewed for tenure after their first five years at a university. This review process requires departmental faculty, the department head, the college dean, the provost, and the chancellor to each make a recommendation for or against tenure to the Board of Governors, which then grants or denies tenure. Tenure provides lifetime job-security, and faculty can be fired only for gross misconduct, incompetence, or serious neglect of duties.

Once granted tenure, faculty undergo post-tenure review every five years. The goal of the post-tenure review process is to ensure that faculty are still productive after receiving tenure, and the process is designed to mimic the original tenure process. The major differences are that fewer actors are involved in the post-tenure review process, and, rather than a simple yes-or-no vote, faculty are rated as not meeting expectations (equivalent to a “no” vote) or are awarded one of two possible “yes” votes: meets expectations or exceeds expectations.

Strengthening Post-Tenure Review

The proposed policy supposedly strengthens post-tenure review by requiring universities to “publish transparent, specific standards” for evaluating faculty productivity. This sounds impressive and appears to be a big change in policy, but consider the published, transparent, and specific standards for achieving tenure in the first place in my department at NC State. In the area of research, faculty must have “a recognized level of accomplishment and national or international recognition in a field of emphasis and the likelihood of maintaining that status through publications, presentations, and professional service.” Where teaching is concerned, they must demonstrate “continued effectiveness in teaching and advising, as well as leadership in program and curriculum development.” This extraordinarily vague tenure language is typical for UNC-System universities, and the new post-tenure review standards required by the proposed regulations will be similarly vague and easy to interpret in a myriad of ways.

The board should ask for some examples of these new “specific” standards. I suspect system personnel will hem and haw in response, because they know that specific standards don’t exist and never will. Instead, the best way to establish rigor in the post-tenure review process is through transparency.

The best way to establish rigor in the post-tenure review process is through transparency.Every year, each university should publish a redacted list of faculty undergoing post-tenure review, showing, for each faculty member, how many books and articles they published, the impact factor of the journals in question (a measure of journal quality), how many grants they received, their numeric teaching evaluations, etc., as well as the post-tenure review outcomes (does not meet, meets, or exceeds expectations). Let the taxpayers and the legislature see exactly how the post-tenure review process is handled by each university. Force the universities to defend granting meets expectations to professors who published only one article in the previous five years, or who consistently received mediocre teaching evaluations during that time period.

It is scandalous that 97 percent of system faculty sail through the post-tenure review process and that this has been going on for almost two decades, despite previous reform efforts by the Board of Governors. There is no reason why the data listed above should be hidden from those who pay faculty salaries. We can gauge the effectiveness of my proposal by how strongly the universities protest it. I suspect the universities and the UNC-System Office will fight this proposal tooth and nail, because they know that the post-tenure review process is meaningless, and they are desperate to hide the appalling details from public view.

Rewarding Faculty Who Exceed Expectations

News reports indicate that a major aspect of the new policy is rewarding faculty who are rated exceeds expectations in their post-tenure review. This sounds reasonable on its face, until we consider how faculty actually receive an exceeds expectation rating. Typically, this occurs because their publication and grant productivity is higher than the norm. When this occurs, it is noted in their annual evaluations, and these faculty are first in line to receive merit raises. Thus, during the five-year period before post-tenure review, exceeds expectation faculty have already been rewarded for their superior productivity via one, and possibly several, merit raises. There is thus no need for additional compensation.

In 2021-2022, half of UNC-System faculty were rated exceeds expectations, so any compensation scheme is likely to be costly given the number of faculty involved. If the Board of Governors wishes to recognize productive faculty, they should either continue current merit raises or discontinue merit raises and instead compensate faculty who exceed expectations in the post-tenure review process. It makes no sense to allow faculty to double-dip by implementing both.

A major concern of many faculty is that post-tenure review will be weaponized against outspoken professors.Protecting Faculty from Retaliation

A major concern of many faculty is that post-tenure review will be weaponized against outspoken professors. Instead of being reviewed by all faculty of the same rank, as occurs with the initial granting of tenure, the post-tenure review policy allows the use of a small group of departmental faculty to conduct the initial stage of the post-tenure review process. Moreover, the department head and dean are the only administrators involved in the post-tenure review process. The provost and chancellor are absent.

This is a recipe for intra-departmental score-settling. To prevent this, any new post-tenure review policy should mimic as much as possible the initial tenure process, by 1) using the same group of departmental faculty to conduct both initial tenure reviews and post-tenure reviews and 2) requiring the provost and chancellor to evaluate tenure during post-tenure review alongside the department head and dean. This has two advantages. First, the department head and deans know the provost and chancellor will be involved in the process and will limit how much they can get away with in terms of targeting outspoken faculty. Second, this policy change forces the provost and chancellor to take ownership of post-tenure review outcomes. If a faculty member is unfairly targeted by the department head and dean, and senior administrators concur, they will have to answer for it to the Board of Governors and the legislature once the faculty member sues and it all becomes public. Similarly, if a faculty with a single publication after five years is rated meets expectations, they will have to defend it. Adding the provost and chancellor to the post-tenure review process will increase accountability and help protect vocal faculty from being targeted.

What Happens After Failing to Meet Expectations?

The UNC-System Office’s reports are very murky about what happens to faculty after they fail to meet expectations. How many are fired? How many choose to retire from the university? Most importantly, how many faculty who did not meet expectations are allowed to take advantage of early-retirement programs such as phased retirement? Much more detail about negative outcomes is needed, and the post-tenure review policy should ban did not meet expectations faculty from taking advantage of any early-retirement programs, which offer additional compensation or reduced teaching loads to faculty.

Many North Carolinians are skeptical that faculty at our public universities continue to be productive after receiving lifetime job-security.Conclusion

Many citizens of North Carolina are skeptical that faculty at our public universities continue to be productive after receiving lifetime job-security via tenure. To ensure the continued support of citizens and legislators, the Board of Governors should mandate vastly increased transparency of the post-tenure review process. This will put pressure on universities to institute a post-tenure review process that actually has some teeth.

The board should also consider whether allowing faculty to double-dip by receiving both merit raises and additional compensation after exceeding expectations is a wise choice from a public-relations perspective. Given the current post-tenure review process, in which it is almost impossible for a faculty member to fail, allocating more money to faculty in a toothless review process does not seem like a popular move.

Finally, the board must realize that the climate of our universities has changed, and faculty such as myself and Mike Adams (who committed suicide after years of attacks by UNC Wilmington) are now targeted for our political views. Any revisions to the post-tenure review policy must also include protections for faculty, and the best way to ensure this is to make the post-tenure review process similar to the initial tenure process.

Stephen Porter is professor of higher education in the College of Education at North Carolina State University. His personal website is StephenPorter.org.