Universities Seek Vehicle To Challenge Tenure

December 5, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Created to promote and protect the free speech and academic freedom necessary for higher education, many universities have discovered that today tenure often serves to protect the employment of obsolete senior faculty.

"The impetus of it in the first place was to maintain the integrity of the educational process," said H. James Williams, dean of GrandValleyStateUniversity's Seidman College of Business. "Faculty need to feel protected when dealing with difficult issues. But in my way of thinking, (tenure) is not as important these days as it was early on."

According to Williams, faculty members have the same constitutional right to talk about subject matter however they wish inside their classrooms as they do outside, provided it relates to the subject matter he or she is teaching.

"It serves a purpose, but I don't believe it serves the same purpose it served early on," Williams said. "The idea was to encourage free speech and intellectual perspective, which we still need. The feeling of comfort it gives the faculty is a good thing and that extra protection is important."

The negative side of tenure is seen when a senior faculty member is no longer productive.

"Sometimes faculty get tenure and feel entitled," he said. "There is an extra burden that is perceived — even if it is not real — on the administration. Universities are very ticklish about dealing with a person with tenure even if they are not being productive."

"For many, many years tenure was sort of like the Holy Grail — once you got there you were pretty much set for life," said Valerie Simmons, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd. She is the chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and Warner's Education Law Group.

"The whole point was to ensure professors who wanted to pursue controversial subjects could do so," Simmons said. "Over time it evolved into this sort of job-for-life concept. Unless you were a mass murderer or sex offender, you had lifetime job security."

This is a problem in a state such as Michigan, where higher education is feeling greater impact from budget cuts each year. Some schools opt to decrease the number of professors in a particular department, others may delete a full department.

"If you do away with the whole department, what happens with those tenured professors?" Simmons asked. "You have to have some mechanism for dealing with them."

Plus, a reduction of force within pre-tenure faculty provides only a fraction of the savings of eliminating senior faculty positions. Early retirement is a popular option, Simmons said, but professors aren't as willing to accept early retirement in today's economic climate.

Such a contingency is built into the tenure policy at GVSU — tenured faculty are considered as having continuous appointments that can be ended by resignation, retirement, dismissal for adequate cause, university financial emergency, reduction in force or changing enrollment patterns.

While obsolete positions can be removed, ineffective faculty members are secure. This could become a volatile subject for GVSU.

GrandValley, as it goes, is a very young school," Simmons said. "But it has been very aggressive in constantly improving the quality of its infrastructure as well as the quality of its faculty."

When the school was first chartered in 1960, it attracted a very different type of professor.

"Forty years ago, they were lucky to get a warm body," Simmons said. "The young professors they attract today are top-level scholars with publication histories and research histories that are probably better qualified in terms of academic credentials than some of its faculty that started back in '60s and '70s."

In order to improve its quality of education and maintain department accreditations, the school may need to get rid of some of its senior faculty to clear room for the more highly qualified professors. Again, the university is burdened with convincing the entrenched faculty to go.

In recent years, some institutions have begun developing mechanisms to remove tenured faculty who fail to perform as expected. The University of Michigan was one of the first schools in the nation to approach the idea. Amid objections from the American Organization of University Professors and American Association of Colleges and Universities, U-M implemented a post-tenure review program in 1997.

At his previous post as dean of the business school at North CarolinaCentralUniversity, Williams managed such a program. Once every five years, faculty members were subjected to a review similar to the one required to earn tenure. If it was determined that the professor had become ineffective, he or she was given three years to correct the deficiencies. If there was no improvement, the professor was dismissed.

"This maintains the tenure system and gives them accountability in a natural way," Williams said. "You don't have to pick on a person: Everyone is subject to the review. It brings the system back into balance."

Many colleges and universities have since formalized policies for post-tenure review, including FerrisStateUniversity, Cornerstone University, Michigan State University and MichiganTechnicalUniversity

Mostly, these programs become developmental tools. This is the case at FerrisStateUniversity, where tenure review has never been used as a removal mechanism or disciplinary measure.

"It's a way of developing faculty," said Roxanne Cullen, assistant vice president of academic affairs. "You don't just get tenure and then go do whatever you want. (The review) is a chance to set and discuss goals for improvement, and also an opportunity for support and to see how you fit into the university's plans."    

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