Education

Ga. Board of Regents approves tenure changes despite faculty protests

Professors in Georgia's university system protested changes to the tenure process and post-tenure review this week.
Professors in Georgia's university system protested changes to the tenure process and post-tenure review this week.
Credit Dr. Jennifer Morgan Flory

The Georgia Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public college and university system, approved changes to its tenure process and post-tenure review Wednesday.

More than a thousand professors signed a petition urging the board to delay or cancel the vote, in large part out of concern it will hurt the state’s ability to attract and keep talent.

The Weight of Tenure

Professors typically work for several years to achieve tenure. It doesn’t guarantee absolute job security, but it usually means instructors can’t be fired without cause. Janet Murray is a professor of Digital Media in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. She says tenure lets professors have open discourse with students without fear of retribution, but the new rules change that.

“It fast tracks dismissing a faculty member and it puts a lot of authority and power in the hands of the Board of Regents, who do not have to have the same standards of lack of conflict of interest and lack of political motives that the faculty do,” Murray says.

Regents are appointed by the governor and most don’t have experience in higher education. The current board is a mix of Regents chosen by Gov. Brian Kemp, former Gov. Nathan Deal, and his predecessor Gov. Sonny Perdue. Kemp declined WABE’s request to comment on the tenure changes, deferring to the Regents.

Yanni Loukissas also teaches Digital Media at Georgia Tech. Like Murray, he’s tenured. He sees the tenure changes as political and retaliatory.

“[The modifications] just so happened to come out right at the same time that a lot of us faculty were speaking out against the lack of mask mandates, the lack of social distancing, the lack of vaccine mandates, which has been putting us all at risk,” he says.

The process began in September 2020 when then-Chancellor Steve Wrigley formed a committee to review tenure policies. However, the proposed changes weren’t publically announced until the Regents’ monthly meeting in September 2021.

Some professors have taken to social media to explain why they oppose the changes to tenure. (Twitter/screenshot)

Significant Changes

Two of the changes that have caused concern among professors are: an addition of a new category to the tenure evaluation process and a change to the post-tenure review process that would let the Regents step in if it deemed a school’s procedure isn’t rigorous enough.

For most tenure track positions in the U.S., professors are evaluated in three categories: research, teaching, and service. Now, Georgia professors will need to prove competence in a fourth category: student success.

“Of course, we all want student success, and we work towards student success in every facet of our job,” says Jennifer Flory, an assistant professor of music at Georgia College.[But] why does it have to then be another…barrier, basically, that we have to prove that we’re doing?”

The second concern is a change that would give the Regents more say in the post-tenure review process, which tenured professors undergo every five years. Currently, the process is handled by each school individually.

“The people who are at the institution who are the peers, who are the experts, they’re the ones who know whether the research is rigorous,” says Rebecca Hill,  an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Kennesaw State University. The Board of Regents are not, themselves, researchers on these subjects, so if they can come into that process and overturn the decisions of the experts, that does seem extremely political, since they are themselves, political appointees.”

Several professors believe the changes will keep good candidates out of Georgia.

“This will hurt the reputation and the rankings of schools in our state,” says Heather Pincock, an Associate Professor of Conflict Management at KSU. “It will make it very difficult to recruit and retain talented faculty and that’s going to hurt students that’s going to hurt the economy of Georgia.”

Pincock, like many other professors, is also worried the changes will threaten academic freedom.

“Academic researchers are the ones who uncovered the Flint, Michigan water crisis,” she says. “That wasn’t regulators or government officials. That was academic researchers and tenure protections allow for the sort of research that benefits the public good like that.”

Meanwhile, the American Association of University Professors warned state officials last month it would investigate and possibly censure Georgia’s university system if the changes to tenure were approved.

Faculty members are worried the changes to Georgia’s tenure process will make it hard to attract and keep talent in the state. (Dr. Jennifer Morgan Flory)

USG Responds

The full statement from the University System of Georgia (issued Tuesday) is below.

The goal of the changes are to support career development for all faculty as well as ensure accountability and continued strong performance from faculty members after they have achieved tenure.

Student success remains a top priority for the university system, and this process intends to strengthen that commitment among faculty throughout their career while also recognizing how faculty already deepen student learning and engagement through activities both inside and outside the classroom.

Most importantly, the system continues to engage with faculty and leadership at our campuses, and appreciates their feedback about post-tenure review. Those discussions helped the system adjust the original proposal and, if approved, faculty input would continue to shape how post-tenure review changes are implemented on every campus.

We have been able to have meaningful dialogue and recognize that ultimately we have the same goal – helping the University System of Georgia maintain its quality and reputation as one of the best public higher education systems.

 

 

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