Tackling Tenure

How USG’s governing body has reshaped tenure policies

The Board of Regents’ (BOR) name has been slanderously thrown around Georgia college campuses and their Twitter-spheres recently in response to their decision not to mandate masks or vaccines across Georgia schools. But you may not have heard about their more recent plan to upend the current tenure system and replace it with one designed to drive professors away from Georgia’s university system.

The University System of Georgia is the statewide governing body that oversees Georgia’s twenty-six public colleges and universities, including Georgia Tech, as well as the Georgia Archives and the Georgia Public Library Service. It is governed by aboard of nineteen regents: one from each of Georgia’s fourteen congressional districts, and five at-large members who represent the entire state. Each regent is appointed by the governor and serves a seven year term. Together, the regents tackle tasks like forming search committees to select new university presidents and creating the policies that govern all twenty-six institutions.

Unlike most governing institutions under our democratic system, the Board of Regents often meets in secret. And, unlike some other colleges and universities which give the president or dean the power to decide the individual school’s policies, the Board of Regents speaks for all twenty-six institutions in Georgia. When the Board of Regents decided to forgo a mask mandate, all twenty-six institutions had to comply, despite outcry from students and faculty at multiple schools.

The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (BORUSG) has now decided to go after tenure. Tenure is a way to give faculty that meet certain standards a permanent post at a university. By no means does this mean that a tenured professor cannot be fired or otherwise held accountable; rather, tenured professors can be fired only if they violate certain standards. Additionally, tenure is not easy to achieve; professors must undergo a rigorous review process of their professional and academic achievement and of their service to the university, and must have taught at a full-time capacity for a specified amount of time. To keep tenure, professors undergo a review every five years. Professors can also lose tenure or face other disciplinary action following a peer-led review process.

Since the USG institutions vary greatly across the state in size and degree programs offered, each USG institution also has its own guidelines on how to grant tenure that follow the Board of Regents minimum standards. Across Georgia, nearly 6,000 professors have been granted tenure, as of fall 2020.

Under BORUSG’s changes, the process to revoke tenure can avert the peer-led review process. Instead, school administrators could revoke tenure if professors fail two annual reviews or do not complete an improvement plan. The BOR also added an additional variable in evaluating a tenured professor’s performance: student success. Student success is not defined anywhere in the USG’s policy manual, making it unclear how this variable will be evaluated. BORUSG also eliminated the part of the tenure policy that contains the clauses that are grounds for tenure, leaving the new causes for termination of tenure somewhat ambiguous.

A Georgia Tech professor reported that when asked why these changes were taking place, professors present at the BOR meeting were not given a response. In the wake of protests and outrage over USG’s COVID-19 policies, speculation has arisen that BOR wants to threaten professors who share opinions contrary to the board’s beliefs. Without an explanation for these changes, many are viewing it as a way to make tenure a political weapon and force professors to adhere to certain political stances.

BORUSG has also suggested that obtaining tenure is too easy to accomplish and too easy to keep. They claim that the process does not effectively identify professors who are not contributing to the university, and they cite the infrequent occurrences of professors losing tenure as evidence. They have even suggested they might overtake the entire tenure process and remove individual institutions’ leadership from the decision making process.

One Georgia Tech professor conceded that the process for tenure review was far from perfect, but expressed concerns that the BOR was not addressing the issue correctly. By changing tenure policy abruptly and not justifying their position, they have caused speculation and unrest among professors and students across the state.

These changes appear to be contrary to the purpose of tenure. Tenure was designed to encourage professors to contribute to the university both in the lecture halls and in their research, and then reward them for their contributions by protecting them from arbitrarily losing their jobs and permitting them to experiment with new teaching and research methods. No professor would want to put in the work to obtain tenure only to arbitrarily lose it. These changes could drive professors away from teaching in Georgia, especially at top schools like Georgia Tech, where professors could easily obtain jobs with competitive salaries in the private sector. The tenured designation will become meaningless.

Immediately following the October vote, we saw a flurry of activity from universities and on Twitter reacting to the change. Steve McLaughlin, Georgia Tech’s provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, issued a statement stating that the process of changing tenure procedures at Georgia Tech would be as transparent and inclusive as possible and encouraged professors to weigh in during the process. A record number of faculty appeared at the Georgia Tech Faculty Senate meeting following the USG vote. Multiple professors from institutions across the state chimed in with their opinions. The vast majority raised concerns over the language changes, despite the BOR’s claims that this will facilitate professors’ career growth and aid student success. Matthew Boedy, a rhetoric professor at the University of North Georgia and the president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has been vocal about his disapproval. He wrote an opinion piece for the AJC denouncing the changes, and took to Twitter soon after the decision. He also penned an open letter to BOR on tenure that over 1,000 USG faculty signed in support. Tim Quigley, a professor in UGA’s Terry College of Business, along with 80% of the Terry faculty, signed an open letter to BORUSG raising concerns about the changes and the lack of faculty involvement in the process.

Like any policy, the policy’s interpretation and implementation matters more than the policy’s passage. University System of Georgia institutions, students, and faculty will see how these changes impact higher education in the upcoming years. If a high number of faculty begin to lose tenure as a result of this policy, we may see fewer professors come to Georgia to teach, and we may see faculty leave teaching for the private sector. If the policy is rarely implemented and the post tenure review process continues as-is, we may not notice any changes in USG institutions.

The series of decisions made by the Board of Regents seem to be contrary to their goals of promoting student success and improving higher education in the state of Georgia. By putting their personal beliefs or politics in front of student safety and by concentrating power in their own hands, they have removed avenues for faculty and administration to make decisions. These senseless decisions are jeopardizing the future of higher education in Georgia.

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