UT's President Wants To Change Tenure, And Professors Fear That Means Job Cuts | Nashville Public Radio

UT's President Wants To Change Tenure, And Professors Fear That Means Job Cuts

Mar 9, 2015

Some professors at the University of Tennessee are not happy with a recent statement from their president.

While presenting a plan to save costs and increase revenue, Joe DiPietro told the UT board he wanted to review the system’s tenure process, including how it evaluates tenured professors and how it fires the bad ones.

“The reality is, the post-tenure review processes that we currently have is not very effective,” he said.

To many professors, the concept of tenure is nearly sacred. Once they’re tenured, which can take six or seven years, they can’t be fired without adequate cause — for example, misconduct or multiple years of unsatisfactory work.

But nationally, the percentage of tenured faculty has been declining consistently over the past two decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s been increasingly criticized for enshrining high-cost professors who are not always very good.

Professors: Does This Mean Downsizing?

DiPietro’s comments alarmed Mary McAlpin, a professor of French in Knoxville, who thinks UT’s current post-tenure review process is already effective. Tenured professors are evaluated annually by their department head, and those who receive two “unsatisfactory” ratings in five consecutive years are evaluated by a committee, which can lead to their dismissal.

“I know of at least four people who have lost tenure in the past six or seven years through this process,” McAlpin said.

UT president Joe DiPietro laid out six steps in an action plan in a discussion about how to make the system's budget more sustainable.
Credit Screenshot of UT board meeting

  The real alarm, she said, comes because DiPietro’s comments about evaluating professors were part of a conversation on the university’s budget.

“He wants to connect that process to cost-savings,” she said, “which sounds a lot like downsizing.”

McAlpin is president of the University of Tennessee’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an organization that believes post-tenure review should be used sparingly.

“If post-tenure is undertaken at an institution, one thing that it should be about is reviewing the faculty’s performance,” said Richard Strange, a professor of wildlife and fishery at UT and a past president of its AAUP chapter. “What it should not be linked to is cost-savings or restructuring.

“The concern is that faculty, that are otherwise doing their job, then are under the gun … to free up money.”

DiPietro: Not About Cost-Cutting

When asked how changing the post-tenure review process would save money, DiPietro said this proposal is not about cutting costs.

Instead, he said, it’s about the “effectiveness and efficiency” of UT’s process for granting tenure and reviewing tenured professors.

“There has not been a comprehensive review of all these processes in more than 15 years. A review of best practices to see if the processes we have in place can be improved on is certainly due,” he said. “With rarity do faculty perform unsatisfactorily, but when they do, we can no longer afford to have inefficient ways to deal with unsatisfactory performance.”

A university communications official said “efficiency” refers to reducing redundancies in the review process and making it less time-consuming for faculty.

One potential change to the post-tenure review process would be to add a layer of evaluation — for example, a routine review every seven years, DiPietro said.

This seven-year review could also reward high-performing professors with additional compensation, he said. But he clarified: “I’m way ahead of myself. These are my concepts. These are Joe’s ideas.”

The review process that DiPietro suggested is similar to the one in place at the University of Colorado Boulder. There, professors are reviewed by a committee of their peers every five years, in addition to having an annual performance review.

Margaret LeCompte, a retired education professor in Colorado, said the process there isn’t seen as a way to get rid of faculty. But she said, professors don’t particularly like it either.

“It’s just one more piece of paperwork we have to do,” she said. “It’s one more task laid on the faculty.”

What’s Next

Even if nothing comes of DiPietro’s proposal to change UT’s post-tenure review, McAlpin, the French professor, is upset the president even brought it up.

“To me, that’s pandering to this horrible cliche of this underperforming, lazy faculty member,” she said.

DiPietro acknowledged he’s heard these complaints.

“Well, you can go look at my Twitter site, too. It lit up last weekend,” he said. “There are people who are anxious, and that’s normal.”

But he said he wants to include professors in the conversation. He plans to begin meeting with the system’s faculty council in the next few weeks to discuss the review process.