Florida Looks at Raising the Stakes on Post-Tenure Review

Amid “renewed interest” from Florida lawmakers into how tenured professors’ performance is judged, a post-tenure review proposal is circulating at state universities. The draft set off alarm bells for some faculty leaders, who say in its current form, it would hobble tenure protections by giving too much power to administrators.

Florida professors were already on edge about academic freedom. News broke a week ago that three political-science professors at the University of Florida had been barred from offering paid testimony in a voting-rights lawsuit against the state. A reason given was that, because the university is a state actor, litigation against the state is “adverse to UF’s interests.” The university used the same reasoning when it barred a pediatrician who supported mask mandates in Florida schools from participating in lawsuits against state agencies, The Chronicle previously reported.

W. Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, said on Friday that he asked the campus’s conflicts-of-interest office to reverse its decisions on recent expert-witness requests.

News of the post-tenure review proposal — first reported by the Tampa Bay Times — also comes shortly after a revised post-tenure review policy sparked strong dissent at Georgia’s public universities. University System of Georgia regents approved the revisions over the objections of faculty members who said the changes would severely weaken tenured professors’ job security.

Now, some Florida professors are making similar arguments about the draft proposal. Early in October, Ralph C. Wilcox, provost at the University of South Florida, explained its origins. “There appears to be renewed interest in tenure on the part of some of our elected officials as we approach the 2022 State Legislative Session,” he wrote in an October 3 email to the president of the Faculty Senate. “Specifically, questions have been raised about continuing performance accountability among State University System (SUS) faculty members who have earned tenure.”

The system’s provosts have “recognized the importance of fully and regularly informing our boards of trustees, members of the Florida [Board] of Governors, and elected officials of the nature, importance and rigor of process associated with granting tenure in assuring the national competitiveness of Florida’s public higher education institutions,” Wilcox wrote. “We have also discussed the essential need of framing a systematic and rigorous periodic review of faculty members who have successfully earned tenure at our universities.”

To that email, he attached a draft document that he said had been “developed by colleagues at the University of Florida,” guided, in part, by policies and practices developed by the University of Texas System. “The expectation is that the attached document, perhaps in modified format, will be considered for drafting as a bill for consideration by members of the Florida State Legislature,” he wrote. He sought feedback from Timothy Boaz, South Florida’s Faculty Senate president, because the State University System of Florida’s Council of Academic Vice Presidents would be evaluating this course of action soon.

To Boaz, the proposal seems unnecessary. Tenured faculty are already amply reviewed under existing procedures, he said in an interview. A group of South Florida faculty leaders looked over the draft, and they wrote up their feedback for Wilcox.

“What,” they asked, “is the problem that is being solved?”

If legislators think that tenure itself is a bad idea,” they wrote, “then offering to spend a lot of time, effort and money doing more evaluation of all tenured faculty seems unlikely to change that view.”

Provosts Would Hold Final Authority

The Microsoft Word file, sent to The Chronicle by two faculty members, lists its “author” as Joseph Glover, provost at the University of Florida. (Glover did not respond to an interview request on Thursday.)

Under the draft policy, tenured faculty would undergo a “comprehensive periodic review” every five years. The review’s purpose is to, among other things, “encourage faculty professional development and realign expectations as the university’s mission and strategic goals change and stature and ambitions rise” and to “refocus academic and professional efforts, when appropriate.”

Here’s how the proposed process would work: Professors would assemble and submit a dossier. The chair would review it and add a “brief letter” assessing the professor’s performance. The professor’s dean would then apply one of four ratings: “exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” “does not meet expectations,” or “unsatisfactory.” That package would then go to the provost, who could accept, change, or reject the dean’s assessment.

Faculty members who exceed or meet expectations would be eligible for some kind of merit pay increase. For anyone who lands in one of the bottom tiers, the document states, the dean “shall propose further action to the provost.” That could mean counseling, a change of assignment, a performance-improvement plan, and “any disciplinary actions that are available under university policies and procedures.” Final decisions, the draft policy says, would fall to the provost.

To Jorg Peters, a University of Florida faculty senator and professor in the department of computer and information science and engineering, the proposal “removes checks and balances that are in place” and instead cedes judgment to administrators who “are usually somewhat removed from what is going on” at the department level.

Under the existing collective-bargaining agreement for faculty at the University of Florida, which covers professors in some but not all divisions, faculty members are reviewed each year. Tenured faculty members also undergo a “sustained performance evaluation” every seven years based on their evaluation file.

If a professor’s performance is deemed consistently unsatisfactory in one or more areas via the sustained-performance evaluation, that person is put on a performance-improvement plan developed by the professor and the chair. Should the faculty member fail to meet deadlines outlined by the plan, the department or unit “has the responsibility to take appropriate actions.” The bargaining agreement contains established procedures for how and why a tenured faculty member can be disciplined or fired.

University regulations outline a similar process. For tenured faculty members outside the bargaining agreement who fail to meet the marks set by their performance-improvement plan, any “appropriate actions” taken are governed by the university’s regulation on suspension, termination, and disciplinary action.

Among faculty members’ concerns is that the proposal does not require peer input. The chair “may ask the assistance of a department advisory committee,” the dean “may ask the assistance of a college advisory committee,” and the provost “may ask the assistance of a university advisory committee,” but none of those options are compulsory. And repercussions are in the hands of deans and provosts.

“It cuts out our ability to have a say in these decisions and leaves it up to people who, for instance, might be politically motivated, right? We’ve seen that happen recently,” said Jack Stenner, an associate professor in the art and technology program at Florida. If every five years, faculty members have to worry about potentially losing their jobs through this process, the effect is akin to removing academic freedom entirely, Stenner said.

According to the draft, any appeal to the provost’s final determination “shall be limited to procedural deficiencies.” Allowing the provost “complete discretion” to categorize the faculty member’s performance and determine the outcome “is tantamount to eliminating tenure,” the South Florida faculty group wrote to Wilcox. “Tenure is about protecting faculty from arbitrary or unjustifiable dismissal. This proposal as written effectively eliminates such protection.”

There’s still a lot to be hammered out. Should this proposal or a version of it become state law, Wilcox wrote in October, “the expectation is that each university will be expected to develop its own implementation policies and procedures (likely within parameters set by the Florida Board of Governors), as is true with many other statutes.”

Wilcox and other provosts within the state university system did not directly respond to The Chronicle’s interview requests except for Mark Rieger at Florida Gulf Coast University, which does not grant tenure. Renee’ Fargason, a spokesperson for the State University System of Florida, said in an email that Florida’s public universities “at their initiative” have “undertaken a review of national best practices surrounding tenure of university faculty to ensure we remain focused on student success and accountability.”

David C. Bloom, chair of the University of Florida’s Faculty Senate, told the Tampa Bay Times he believes that university leaders understand the importance of tenure to the institution’s national stature.

But the proposal seems to be part of a “general attempt to control academics from outside the university,” said Eric Chicken, Faculty Senate president at Florida State University. Which is not how it should be.

“We truly feel,” he said, “that we are the best qualified … to gauge when somebody is doing well as a professor versus when somebody is not.”

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