Defending Academic Freedom: The Threat of Post-Tenure Review and Merit Pay

By Richard Schneirov

On Apr. 5, 2016, Dr. Rudy Fichtenbaum, President of the AAUP, addressed the campus chapter of Indiana State University on the subject of post-tenure review. The talk was wide-ranging, and Dr. Fichtenbaum offered practical guidance on issues that Indiana AAUP members will find useful. His talk was a powerful defense of academic freedom and faculty voice in the field of higher education.

Over the last four decades academic freedom in higher education has been in continuous decline due to the increasing reliance on part-time and full-time temporary faculty. This group, which off the tenure track, comprises about 70 percent of all faculty in US institutions of higher learning. But, there is another source for the mounting threats faced by American faculty, chief among them the increasing use of post-tenure review.

At the start of his talk, Dr. Fichtenbaum made clear that post-tenure review needs to be distinguished from a number of misconceptions. First, it should not be confused with accountability. Virtually all tenured faculty members are subject after receiving tenure to some form of periodic evaluation at college and universities across the country. Nor does it mean that once being granted tenure, a faculty member has a job for life. Tenure simply means that if faculty members continue to perform their jobs, they cannot be let go unless for “just cause.” That means that the burden of proof is on the university to prove that a faculty member has either been incompetent, neglected his or her duty, or has engaged in unethical or immoral behavior (for definitions see AAUP’s 2004 Statement on Termination & Discipline). Typically, dismissal is a last resort following an opportunity to remediate behavior. Virtually all institutions of higher education have procedures for dismissal of faculty that cover such cases. Most members of the public, as Dr. Ficthenbaum pointed out, would agree with the statement that people should retain their job as long as they continue to perform it competently. Put simply, that is what tenure is, and we should not be shy about defending it.

Post-tenure review (PTR) is different. It is an attempt to periodically re-open the grueling and comprehensive tenure process under the supposition that underperforming faculty members need to be identified and purged from the university. In cases where PTR has been instituted—one estimate is that one-third of all universities have such systems in place—very few faculty members actually are let go. However, the result of such periodic evaluations is to chill the atmosphere of the academic community. Out of fear, many faculty members self-censor when it comes to making controversial statements whether in class, within the academic community, or in public. The result is that the seven-year probationary period that tenure-track faculty members undergo before the tenure decision, and during which they typically fear to give offense to those with power and authority, is extended indefinitely.

Academic freedom is often not well understood by either the public or even many faculty members. It is not the same as the right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. That amendment only limits the government from infringing on freedom of speech. Thus, the right it establishes does not prevent employers from taking disciplinary action, including dismissal, for the speech acts of employees. Academic freedom is different because it limits the ability of Boards of Trustees and university administrators from infringing on the speech rights of faculty members, except under special circumstances.

Why should college and university faculty members, among all employees, be permitted to enjoy such freedom? Academic freedom is intended to enable institutions of higher education to serve the public good. Not for profit colleges and universities, both public and private, should be distinguished from proprietary or for-profit institutions of higher education. The former are publicly funded and expected to serve the public good, while in the latter faculty are merely employees and their voices can be presumed to be that of their employer. For the former type of institutions, faculty members’ voices are their own, and are not to be confused with that of their employer.

The AAUP was founded in 1915 for the purpose of defining and defending the autonomous voice for faculty in seeking the public good within and outside the university. Thus, to support academic freedom is not to defend an antiquated privilege of an elite or of individual faculty members to indulge their fancy, but to enable faculty members to use their best professional judgment in making institutions of higher education and the policies of government serve the public good. Where academic freedom does not exist, as for example at Indiana’s Ivy Tech community college system, faculty members are treated as employees and cannot avail the public of their considered judgments.

When administrators attempt to introduce PTR in one form or another, the intention is typically to increase control over the behavior of faculty members and reduce their ability to exercise their best judgments. The justifications are several. One of the most important is that PTR would increase the productivity of faculty, the assumption being that a significant number of professors are shirking their duties or not following the kinds of policies that the university deems necessary. There is a serious problem with this argument. It is almost impossible to measure productivity unless one can measure output. For businesses that produce commodities output can be measured in terms of standardized units that are sold on the market. But, in higher education the task is not to produce commodities but educated citizens and an enhanced democratic community. That “output” cannot be measured in any standardized way but only through a many-sided conversation in the academic community, with an independent faculty’s voice a vital contributor.

Because post-tenure review is fundamentally an abrogation of tenure, it has been resisted strenuously be faculty. More common have been various systems of merit pay, some of them quite elaborate. The AAUP does not oppose merit pay per se, but merit pay like PTR can be constructed in a way that undermines the robustness of academic freedom. Often an enormous amount of time and energy of faculty members and administrators is put into evaluating faculty with the object of distinguishing between those who are performing at, above, or below “expectations.” Even if the very few who are identified as performing below expectations are not dismissed, the drain of scarce university resources to identify this tiny minority is hard to justify. Moreover, by creating an incentive for faculty members to compare themselves to each other in a zero sum, mad scramble for a small bonus, the system sets faculty members against each other. It widens the gap between administrators and faculty, demoralizes faculty, and contributes to the sense that they are under siege.

Merit pay like PTR creates a system that administrators use to gain more control over faculty in their everyday duties. For example, at Indiana State University, the provost recently decreed that all faculty members who did not turn in interim grades would be classed as performing below expectations and denied the typical pay increase used to make up for the rise in the cost of living. If one really wanted to create an incentive for excellence, Dr. Fichtenbaum suggested that the university offer additional promotions beyond the two now available, each accompanied by a substantial pay increase.

If we understand various systems of post-tenure review and merit pay in the context of administrative attempts to monitor and control tenured faculty, reduce their status from that of professionals to employees, and thus limit the scope and scale of academic freedom, it behooves the faculty to resist. A common argument against resistance is that if we don’t accommodate administrative demands to institute PTR, a worse result will be imposed from above. But, by taking ownership of such a system and trying to make it work, faculty members find it more difficult to resist its underlying imperatives.

In asking faculty members to resist, Dr. Fichtenbaum suggested that they enlist students and voluntary associations in the larger community, for example, church groups, professional associations, unions, and activists in social movements, to support our cause. We can also create a concerted movement on the state level enlisting the efforts of faculty on multiple campuses. Faculty cannot limit themselves to passing Faculty Senate resolutions.

Discussion after the talk raised the point that faculty need a counter-discourse to the present one of “accountability” with its productivity and accountability schemes imposed from above. There may be no better alternative than to revive the discourse with which AAUP began its existence: that of protecting and expanding the voice of the faculty along with other members of the community to make education serve the best interests of our democracy.

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