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UNC System examining tenure review, incentivizing faculty retirements

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UNC System examining tenure review, incentivizing faculty retirements

Sep 14, 2023 | 6:43 am ET
By Joe Killian
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UNC System examining tenure review, incentivizing faculty retirements
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UNC System President Peter Hans speaks in a Wednesday committee meeting. (Image: PBS NC live feed)

The UNC System Board of Governors is asking for a more uniform and rigorous tenure review process, with some members questioning low number of faculty who aren’t meeting expectations.

In occasionally tense conversations during a day of committee meetings Wednesday, board members, faculty and campus administrators discussed the often-misunderstood issue of tenure — which has become a subject of national debate in higher education — and how professors are reviewed.

Critics of tenure, including an increasing number of groups and individuals on the political right who have called for its abolition, often characterize it as a “lifetime appointment.” But tenured faculty can be eliminated for behavior that would get any professor fired, as well as as during extreme financial circumstances at an institution or when their programs are eliminated.

Most institutions, including all UNC System universities that grant tenure, also maintain a post-tenure review process. Faculty who don’t meet expectations can lose their tenure or be fired.

The UNC Board of Governors adopted a policy and guidelines for post-tenure review in 1997 and updated them in 2014 to “assure the continuing rigorous application of post-tenure review as intended by the Board of Governors” and “to support and encourage excellence among tenured faculty.”

According to a system report discussed Wednesday, 742 tenured faculty members across the system underwent performance reviews by their peers in the 2021-2022 academic year. Of those reviewed, 50% were found to exceed expectations, 47% were found to meet expectations and just 2.96% were found not to meet expectations. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the completion of 15 reviews.

Board members and UNC System President Peter Hans said they found the share of faculty not meeting expectations suspiciously low, calling into question the actual rigor of processes at some universities.

A 10-year overview of post-tenure reviews in the system found the percentage of tenured faculty not meeting expectations only slightly lower — 2.92% across all institutions over 10 years.

“This is a point I frequently made as a member of this board and now I have the privilege of making it as president,” Hans said Wednesday. “It is very clear when you look at a decade’s worth of data that variation between our campuses, in terms of the robust nature with which they undergo tenure review, is a concern. And it has been a concern of the board and the system office for some time.”

“I have mentioned to the chancellors that if you look at the data and over a decade you have one or zero members of the faculty who have been removed as a result of post-tenure review, you’re not doing it right,” Hans said.

“We’ve had some very pointed conversations with certain chancellors in that regard,” Hans said.

The report showed a wide variation in the number of faculty found not to meet expectations across different campuses from 2012 to 2022. N.C. State University had by far the most faculty members not meeting expectations over that period with 71, but it is also one of the largest schools in the UNC System. Likewise, the system’s flagship, UNC-Chapel Hill, had 52. UNC-Greensboro had not a single faculty member not meet expectations in that same 10-year period, according to the report.

a chart lists the number of faculty members who failed post-tenure reviews
Chart: UNC System

That’s not because tenured faculty at N.C. State are failing at a greater rate, Hans said.

“NC State is actually a leader among our institutions with a robust post-tenure review process,” Hans said. “It is not that they have a higher percentage of faculty members who are not making the grade. They are in fact our prime example of how you do it and how you do it effectively.”

Wade Maki, a philosophy professor at UNCG and chair of the system’s faculty assembly, said the report raised legitimate questions.

“From a faculty perspective, we know there are different standards being applied,” Maki said. “Some are more rigorous than others. We do believe it should be uniform.”

On Wednesday, Maki and David English, acting senior vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer at the UNC System Office, told the board about the work of the Faculty Policies Workgroups they’ve been steering to examine this issue, among a number of others.

The work groups have representatives from all 17 constituent institutions and include faculty, campus administrators, and UNC System Office staff. Each committee included a sitting provost.

It’s been a true partnership, really a model for shared governance,” Maki said.

Wade Maki
Wade Maki, chair of the UNC System’s Faculty Assembly. Photo: www.northcarolina.edu

The working groups’ full policy recommendations should go to the full board in the fall, Maki said. But on the issue of tenure review, a lot of questions have to be asked.

“Some institutions do better than others at identifying people who are not meeting their annual review goals before they’re in danger at the tenure review stage,” Maki said. “That’s a success story. And what works for N.C. State might not work for UNCG. But we do want to feel sure there’s a rigorous process that everyone understands at every institution.”

Part of reforming that process is ensuring that faculty who are meeting or exceeding expectations are being rewarded, Maki said, rather than just sanctioning those who aren’t.

“The post-tenure review policy as put in place was just a stick,” Maki said. “There was no carrot involved. It was a punitive measure. You could be found deficient. But if you weren’t, you just continue. There’s no recognition, no reward.”

His group’s will suggest changing that, Maki said — whether it’s making high-performing faculty eligible for awards, more research leave time or, potentially, some actual financial incentive.

The goal, Maki said, is to strengthen the tenure process and confidence in it — from the board, lawmakers and the public. That’s important in a higher education environment wherein tenure is being targeted, especially in southern states with Republican legislative majorities.

As NC Newsline reported this week, a new survey from the American Association of University Professors found assaults on tenure — a safeguard for, and pillar of, academic freedom in higher education — are one factor leading faculty in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas to seek positions in other states.

In April, NC Newsline reported on a proposal at the General Assembly that would effectively end the granting of academic tenure in the UNC System and subject research conducted at its universities to greater political scrutiny. The bill stalled after facing strong opposition and concerns it would make it harder to hire and retain sought-after faculty and could dry up research funding.

“We seem to have dodged that, at least for now,” Maki said.

Incentivizing retirement: “a privileged nursing home”

During Wednesday’s committee meetings, board members also discussed another cost-cutting measure: incentivizing faculty retirement.

As  NC Newsline reported earlier this year, the UNC System has asked the General Assembly for $16.8 million as part of the state budget process to incentivize faculty retirements — starting with schools that have for years faced enrollment problems. Five campuses would be prioritized: NC Central, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Greensboro, Winston-Salem State, and East Carolina University.

The system office estimates 20% of those eligible may take retirement, freeing up salary dollars that could be used elsewhere at campuses that are looking at tough budget cuts.

That funding is caught up in the ongoing budget negotiations, which stalled again this week in Raleigh as Republican majorities in the state House and Senate continued to clash over whether and how to expand casino gambling in the state. But the proposal had strong support from faculty, university administrators and board members.

There was less unity about how that support was expressed — and how faculty who may consider the retirement incentive were characterized.

“I have noticed some of the faculty, when they are not supposed to be in the faculty, at the age of close to 80 when they cannot hear properly, cannot see properly, but still they are tenured faculty, they don’t want to retire,” said Swadesh Chatterjee, a newcomer to the board.

UNC System examining tenure review, incentivizing faculty retirements
Swadesh Chatterjee, member of the UNC System Board of Governors. (Image: UNC)

The situation reminded him of “a privileged nursing home,” Chatterjee said.

Maki called that “an unfortunate choice of phrasing” when describing UNC System faculty.

“It’s not a helpful thing to say,” Maki said. “I’ve been in higher ed now in the UNC System for 20 years and the faculty who can’t see, who can’t hear? I’ve never met that person and I’ve never heard of that person. Are there maybe people who are less engaged? That’s fair to ask. But a ‘privileged nursing home?’ I don’t think that’s fair.”

Faculty from across the system have reached out to ask about the program, Maki said, leading him to believe there’s a lot of interest in it.

“If we have people who are willing to retire today but can’t yet afford to, this could help them,” Maki said. “And it could be a win-win plan for institutions that need flexibility.”

Over the course of academic careers, conditions may change, Maki said — including what programs are in demand and how many faculty are needed to teach them.

If our school of business is booming, maybe those faculty won’t be eligible. But if we have lower demand programs, maybe it can be used there and we can reinvest in programs where we have more demand and fewer resources,” Maki said.