Ayres Hall on the University of Tennessee campus (Photo by Nima Kasraie)

The Faculty Senate of the University of Tennessee has expressed its opposition to an expansion of post-tenure review processes currently under consideration by the university’s Board of Trustees.

Following a Board workshop last August to review the current Enhanced Post-Tenure Performance Review policy (EPPR), the university system administration drafted new policy language for the Board to consider at its meeting on March 23.

As part of that drafting process, the administration submitted the proposed policy changes to the faculty in February for comments. Those changes have concerned faculty leadership, in part due to a perception that the university is taking steps to weaken or reduce tenure.

The initial draft of the policy addition read as follows:

“The Board of Trustees reserves the right to direct the administration to conduct an Enhanced Post-Tenure Performance Review of some or all tenured faculty of a campus, college, school, department, or division at any given time or at periodic intervals, as the Board in its discretion deems warranted.”

Faculty expressed concern over the vagueness and breadth of this language, leading the administration to create a more detailed revision of the new policy. The latest draft now includes prefatory remarks about both the importance of tenure and the university’s “fiduciary responsiblity” to ensure students are well-served by faculty.

The revised policy also indicates two main purposes for post-tenure reviews: as part of a comprehensive review of particular, underperforming programs, and as part of a general six-year review of all tenured faculty. As the new language states:

“…the Board, pursuant to a duly adopted resolution, may require the President to establish procedures under which a comprehensive peer review shall be conducted of all faculty members, both tenured and non-tenured, in an academic program that has been identified as under-performing through an academic program review process. In addition, the President shall establish, with Board approval, procedures for every tenured faculty member at a campus to receive a comprehensive peer review no less often than every six years.”

These changes to the policy draft, however, have not assuaged faculty concerns. As reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, at a special meeting last week, some UT faculty asserted these changes would effectively “eliminate tenure.” Sociology department head Jon Shefner said, “Basically they’re saying we’re not firing enough people.” Other faculty complained about the “secrecy” involved in the development of the new policy and questioned the true intent behind it.

Two days after that faculty meeting, UT President Joe DiPietro released a firmly-worded statement titled, “The Truth About Post-Tenure Review Policy.” DiPietro said “recent news coverage…has included some disappointing, false, and misleading faculty comments causing unnecessary fear, concern and anxiety.” He added, “Not only are they harmful to the University’s reputation, these statements question my motives and integrity and those of our Trustees, and I am confident they do not reflect views of the vast majority of faculty across the state.”

DiPietro also said that faculty had been involved in early stages of the policy revision process, and he noted post-tenure reviews of all tenured faculty are “not uncommon” at other universities. He reminded faculty that tenure policies are set by the Board, and “a small group of the faculty cannot be allowed to dictate Board policies to govern themselves through tactics of intimidation and misinformation.”

His concluding remarks reflected the uneasy tension between the functions of tenure and approving job performance:

“The Board and I fully recognize the importance of tenure in protecting academic freedom. As a professor who achieved tenure, I also fully understand and appreciate the rigor of the tenure-granting process. Nevertheless, the Board and I have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that tenure is not misinterpreted as unconditional job security for life regardless of performance. Only those who are not sustaining the same level of performance that led to tenure should have any concern about post-tenure review.”

In response to DiPietro’s statement, history professor Martha Black told the News-Sentinel, “I’m still very concerned that the lack of clarity in the proposal suggests the possibility of periodic re-tenuring. Tenure now has a different meaning if it now requires periodic, regular re-approval policies.”

We will continue to monitor this story.