Tenure protects academic freedom and provides the conditions for faculty to pursue research and innovation, free from corporate or political pressure. Recently, however, tenure has become the center of heated debate in academia after Georgia’s public university system changed its process for reviewing and firing professors whose tenure status has long protected them.
On October 13, 2021, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia gave its universities the authority to terminate tenured professors without additional faculty input. In the past, the removal process for tenured faculty at UGS included a peer review process with other faculty. However, their 19-member board of directors unanimously approved this new policy allowing for termination after failing two consecutive annual exams. These reviews serve as an objective measure of all faculty in several key areas: teaching evaluation, student success activities, research/scholarship, and service, depending on the institution, school or college, faculty member’s department, faculty.
This new UGS policy is the first of its kind and has proven divisive among academics.
“Tenure is a process that tenured professors must go through to establish themselves as scholars in their fields and as members of academic communities,” said Jennifer Andrus, associate professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Utah and member of the University Promotion and Tenure Advisory Committee. “Once you are tenured, you have certain rights and privileges that allow you to have more flexibility in how you build your career.”
Andrus said tenure is not a protection against dismissal, but rather a governance shared by faculty.
“It’s about being a member of a community that values scholarship, teaching, and service, especially scholarship that helps the field and the department grow,” Andrus said.
Regarding faculty retention at U, Andrus said there were checks every year where tenured faculty wrote a self-report on what they had accomplished.
“It’s hard to fail a lot of these reviews and lose your job,” Andrus said. “Before that, you were called into the principal’s office and went through a lot of checks and balances before you were fired from a permanent position.”
Yet this new UGS policy has left some students wishing to pursue a college education uncertain about their future.
“I actually find the UGS policy very encouraging,” said Marina Gerton, a third-year student at the University and a member of the undergraduate student advisory committee for the physics department. “Having safeguards in place to ensure that professors fulfill their role is quite important because there is a fine line in academia between intellectual freedom and doing absolutely whatever you want. I think holding faculty accountable is great. It would also be a very positive thing for me, as I could get constructive feedback on how I could improve as a faculty member.
However, Gerton said it’s hard to say what the UGS policy means for the future of academia.
“I understand this is a push for an objective method that determines faculty promotion and retention, even though it really isn’t,” Gerton said. “You know, the idea behind creating an objective method while using survey data is not ‘objective’, so I think that’s a bit of a tough question. I’d be curious to see how it will happen in the next few years with UGA faculty, which is not to say that I want an experiment to happen at the expense of people’s livelihoods.
With these new tenure changes, the labor economy in academia has reached an inflection point.
“The academic labor market is rather narrow and specific compared to other labor markets,” said Thomas Maloney, labor economist and professor at U. “Getting a Ph.D. aligns people with specific employers, and from there it’s a narrow path. While professionals like doctors and lawyers may have the option to exercise an option for their workplace … academics have relatively fewer options and have a very particular type of work.
Maloney said there is an oversupply of academic labor because labor supply is not “responsive to demand in academia.”
“However, the academic labor market responds to other factors: creative freedom and academic freedom, to name a few,” Maloney said. “Tenance is one of those factors, and it draws people into the academic job market. It is the promise of due process within an institution and offers great stability once you get it. However, tenure is only relevant for a minority of academics – most university teachers are on a ‘career path’ or are adjunct professors.
With UGS being the first serious threat to academic tenure in recent memory, Maloney thinks the implications of this threat are less clear.
“The tenure certainly offsets the risks of being an academic,” Maloney said. “Having to move and find positions elsewhere is expensive, and tenure protects established academics from that. However, this is not a lifetime warranty. Tenure does not shield academics from policies or departmental closures. During COVID-19, for example, many tenured professors lost their jobs due to department closures. »
Maloney said that while the majority of academics would not be affected by this new policy, it makes academic jobs less attractive.
“So that could affect labor market supply,” Maloney said. “But as I said, there is currently an oversupply. In the long run, this policy might fix that sort of thing, but it’s hard to say.