UT tenure review policy receives mixed reaction from faculty

Posted on: February 22nd, 2012 by Teddy Wilson 1 Comment

UT Austin Tower

The debate surrounding higher education in Texas has affected the state’s colleges in different ways, and now it appears that the faculty at the University of Texas (UT) System colleges are the focus of a new reform. A move to change the way professor tenure is reviewed–supported by the administration–received mixed reviews from the faculty members who helped develop it.

Earlier this month the UT System Board of Regents approved a policy change aimed at creating additional accountability for tenured faculty members on the system’s campuses. Under the new guidelines the performance reviews that tenured system faculty receive have been modified to take place on a more frequent basis and to be more in depth.

There are now two types of reviews. Faculty will be reviewed on a yearly basis, and they will also receive “comprehensive reviews” at least every six years. In addition, faculty will be given one of four ratings as opposed to the previous pass or fail system. The ratings include exceeds expectation, meets expectation, does not meet expectation and unsatisfactory.

If faculty members receive two consecutive “unsatisfactory” reviews, a comprehensive review can be initiated. The new policy is designed to make it easier to reward professors with exemplary performance and to dismiss those with unsatisfactory performance.

In interviews with the Texas Independent, faculty members from around the system expressed a variety of viewpoints on both the policy change and how it was developed. Some faculty members are fully supportive of the policy change, some are ambivalent and others are admittedly opposed.

“I’ve been opposed to the change in the policy since the beginning,” said Alan Friedman, a faculty member at UT-Austin. “There’s no question that the most immediate impact will be that these changes will be both demanding and burdensome. Faculty will have to spend more time evaluating each other and this will impede productivity.”

Friedman laid out the case that the policy would create more bureaucracy. “More people will need to be involved, a great deal more effort and time will be involved in original post tenure review,” said Friedman, who helped create the previous policy on faculty performance reviews 10 years ago. He sees the new policy as something very different from what was created then. “This is a radical departure,” said Friedman. “It fundamentally alters the process and potential outcome.”

“This is a refinement of the old rule. The old rule, in my opinion, was rather vague,” said Daniel Formanowicz, a faculty member at UT-Arlington. Formanowicz supports the new policy, and disagreed with the characterization that it would be burdensome, and said that it strengthens the review process.  “The old rule didn’t really allow us to recognize everyone. The new rule allows us to recognize people based on their performance. I think it gives us more protection. It gives us more peer review. I think it protects us better. It gives us room for faculty development.”

Formanowicz thinks that the only situation that actually calls for more work on the part of faculty is if someone does not meet expectations. “The only time this brings in any more work at all is if a professor asks for peer reviews,” said Formanowicz.

Developing the policy change

Early last year, the UT System Faculty Advisory Committee (SFAC) began working on the language of a new policy to govern tenured faculty reviews. The SFAC is typically made up of two faculty members from each system campus and one alternate, and includes an executive committee.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa had contacted the SFAC executive committee to inform them that the Regents were interested in a change in policy. A task force was formed with four members of SFAC. This committee worked with the interim Vice Chancellor Pedro Reyes and Executive Vice Chancellor David Prior to develop a task force draft. That draft was issued to the entire faculty advisory committee.

During a September meeting, the new proposal from the task force was presented to SFAC members, and was highly criticized. Formanowicz, a former chair of the SFAC executive committee, told the Texas Independent that the specific proposals within the draft were never actually discussed. “When it got to the meeting, we never actually considered the draft,” said Formanowicz. “There was a lot of discussion about changes to the draft, and after the meeting there was an alternative draft that was circulated via email.”

The new alternative draft was circulated among the members of SFAC, and eventually an email vote was taken with the majority supporting the alternative draft. Some faculty members have contended that during that September meeting there was a lack of transparency with how the task force developed the original draft, and that there was a misunderstanding of what policy suggestions were contained within the draft.

At a January meeting of SFAC, faculty members had to make a choice between supporting the original draft and the alternative draft. It was at this meeting that Cigarroa reportedly made the case for supporting the original draft. However, his message was perceived very differently by various faculty members.

Friedman told the Texas Independent that Cigarroa forced the faculty to rescind the vote by threatening something worse. Friedman said that Cigarroa “made it clear that if the faculty didn’t support the administration’s proposal that something much worse would be implemented down the line.”

“The chancellor never said that,” said Formanowicz, who contested Friedman’s version of events. “He never threatened the faculty. He said that he thought the first task force draft was better.”

According to the UT System Office, Chancellor Cigarroa was not available for comment on this story due to his travel schedule.

Derek Catsam, faculty member at UT Permian Basin, told the Texas Independent that Cigorroa made the case for a unified faculty in support of the original draft. “I think that Cigarroa legitimately has the long term interests of the faculty in mind,” said Catsam. “With that said, it was made clear to us that a unified front had to be put forward and that unified front had to come in the form of the plan that the chancellor had put forward.”

The members of SFAC eventually did vote for the original draft supported by Cigarroa, by a count of 26-3. A member of the SFAC who wished not to be identified said that Cigarroa supported the policy that he could sell to the regents. “He knows what we’re dealing with as far as the regents. He is a good politician, and he knows that politics is the art of the possible. If you’re involved in faculty governance you can’t be a bad loser, we all want to have a voice in shared governance.”

Putting the policy into practice

Each of the System campuses is now charged with implementing the new policy, and on several campuses the change is well underway. Each campus is required to draft an implementation document, which will typically be reviewed by faculty and approved by the administration. Most faculty members said they believe implementation of the new policy would take place in full during fall semester of 2012.

Murray Leaf, a faculty member at UT-Dallas, told the Texas Independent that at UT-Dallas one of the main challenges is the annual review. “That’s what we’ve been working on,” said Leaf. “We’ve got a process that we’re working on. We just had a discussion in the faculty senate on the possible problems in the policy. “

In a broader context, the policy change is part of an ongoing debate surrounding higher education in Texas. The policy changes affecting tenured faculty are among the goals of those promoting reform to the higher education system and calling for more accountability. “The obvious question of accountability is to whom,” said Leaf. “Our first job is to be accountable to our profession and then our accountability to the public is that we are being professional. The question is what kind of information does the public need to have to know how we are doing our jobs, and that would be how well we are teaching and how productive we are.”

“There is a lot of concern about where things are going in general in Texas,” said Formanowicz. ”There is a reason why the state legislature formed a joint House and Senate committee. I think that there are some outside forces that have been prominent in the media, for example the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who have not exactly been accurate in what they are saying. They get a little bit of data and misconstrue and cherry pick the things that are going to fit their argument.” Formanowicz also says that faculty on the Austin campus have been unfairly targeted, and that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of tenure. “It is not a lifetime contract,” said Formanowicz.

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