Friday, March 18, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Post-Tenure Review
In your latest blog post you lament the lifetime employment nature of tenure. Yet many of your commenters keep bringing up "post-tenure review" and that firing a tenured person for gross incompetence should be, if not easy, at least possible. I've read enough of your blog to know that you consider post-tenure review a joke and a fig leaf, like all performance reviews in academe, and that the firing standards are much higher than people assume. Here's what I'd like to know: in your time in higher education, have you ever heard of someone tenured actually being fired? In your experience, has post-tenure review ever actually led to any substantive outcomes?
The question should be directed at the readership as well -- how often have you heard of someone tenured actually being fired for non-criminal activity? Given the size of the academic world, there has to be a decent number of incompetents with tenure out there. They can't all be rock stars. In your experiences, has anyone deserving of the boot ever gotten the boot for being a terrible prof?
I'm far enough outside of the academy that I have no idea what the truth is. Maybe canning for incompetence does happen from time to time, and DD exaggerates the strength of tenure due to its aggravating effects on his job. Maybe it doesn't happen, and the cries of "but there's post-tenure review" and "firing can't be that hard" are weak rationalizations for a defective system.
Anybody know of tenure being lost for incompetence or quitting on the job? Is it that every college has to do it once in a while, or once every few decades, or is it like a Bigfoot sighting, where some guy heard once from a dude that there's a rumor it happened once long ago in another town? Can you name people who've had tenure and been canned for non-criminal reasons? The answer to that will illuminate the real effects of tenure on job retention, rather than its theoretical effects.
How often does "firing the tenured for being really lousy" really happen? Just how bulletproof is a tenured prof in reality?
In my own experience, I’ve never seen a tenured professor terminated. Nor have I ever seen a meaningful change as a result of a post-tenure review. Nor have I seen a post-tenure review used to nudge someone towards resignation or retirement. So yes, I consider it irrelevant at best. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, then post-tenure review is hypocrisy.
But it’s a big world out there, so I’ll pose it to my wise and worldly readers. Have you ever seen actual, significant, on-the-ground consequences from a post-tenure review?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Students were VERY relieved.
At my grad R1 university, faculty didn't get tenured until they reached full professor, which took more than 10 years. (My Ph.D. advisor was hired there in the early 80s and didn't get tenure until around 1998, about halfway through my time there.) By the time people there became tenured, they were "seasoned" enough to treat it with respect. Plus, the only rationale that was considered for employment was bringing in big research bucks, not teaching or other faculty duties. The only people I can remember who were "let go" either faked data on grant applications or ran out of grant money.
At the CC that I teach at, I don't think a tenured faculty member has ever been let go.
It's interesting to compare my undergrad experience with my experience as a faculty member at a CC. The main reason why tenured faculty at my SLAC were fired (or forced to resign) was because of the professional shame of their actions, that what they did was such an anathema to the academy. At my CC though, there isn't a drop of shame at all. My guess would be that there's a sense of protection afforded by our contract makes a very small number (like two or three out of 118) of us feel invincible. Either that, or these people are friends or donors to legislators and feel that their jobs are pretty secure.
I also know of a "preferenced" adjunct faculty members (part-time faculty members gain contractual preference for assignments after serving for a certain number of semesters in my district) who lost his preferenced status and was dismissed from the adjunct pool after a negative performance review. It was a similar, but not as lengthy, a process as for the tenured professor.
The woman two doors down who has been retired on the job for 10 years and students compete to NOT be in her classes and every one of her classes ends with any number the students filing grievances and she frequently only bothers to show up for around half the classes she has to teach? Everyone just crosses their fingers and hopes she retires.
I have seen several instances of people losing tenured positions, some of whom resigned rather than see the process through to the end. (I don't see a difference between resignation and termination if the termination process had actually started.) I also know of at least one instance where the revocation process was started (what you might call "progressive discipline") with termination to follow if no changes were made.
The actual number is probably far greater, because such things are never announced due to HR rules. Only criminal acts end up in the papers. You have to be in the right place at the right time to even hear a rumor about some of them. If I count rumors and vague allusions to past events, you can triple the numbers up above.
Of the five administrators I've worked under in twenty years, only one was willing to start long-overdue proceedings to remove a non-performing lecturer. The others thought it was too much work, or too unpleasant, or too something. One used to complain about a particular lecturer that did very little the very year after he signed her permanent contract without inspecting her because he was 'too busy' to evaluate her performance (bad even on probation).
I realize that performance evaluations aren't as interesting as discussing chalk dust and projectors, but I'd argue they are more important. Certainly important enough to take seriously.
(On an unrelated note: I agree that resignation in the face of termination is functionally the same as being fired, so those situations should count in the tally.)
The question is tough to answer accurately, as several have noted, given that due to the risk of lawsuits, reasons for termination are seldom disclosed.
DD keeps putting out (often slightly biting) ideas for Ed.D. dissertations. Polling college administrations and finding out rates of and reasons for tenure termination could be a fascinating topic.
My institution has a fairly strong post-tenure review process, with a series of defined steps that look like progressive discipline in it. If everything plays out, it can take 2-3 years to complete. I do not KNOW of any instances on my camppus in which it has been invoked, although I do know of two people who retired rather unexpectedly...
The length of time and number of people involved you cite strongly implies that the system for termination-for-incompetence is unrealistic. If a system fails for decades (per your comment, there's other dead wood that really should be canned; thus the system is indeed not working) despite a number of people trying it for twenty years, that means either you've hit upon an amazing string of losers or the system is badly flawed.
It was only after the professor left, and I and other folks had to take over this person's classes, that it came out that this professor had been doing a pretty negligent job in the classroom as well.
On a similar note, I know of two grad students who were dismissed from the graduate program I attended: one for plaigarism, and one for throwing something at a professor during an argument.
Outside of academia, of course, this happens all the time. People are fired and not hired based on "fit". By law (in Canada anyway) employers can't just fire someone for no reason, so sometimes a poor employee is terminated for an otherwise small infraction like being late or slight under-performance on the job. People can be fired for a variety of reasons, and this has some benefits. Managers can tune their teams to suit short- and long-term goals, and to meet current needs. Tenure, it would appear, takes those options away: you're basically stuck with someone until they do something criminal or are severely negligent in their work for an extended period of time. Really think about that point. It can lead to some pretty interesting situations, to say the least.
I'd go with the system. Here is how the system is supposed to work:
Lecturers are supposed to be inspected every three years (an administrator sits in on a class). If the lecturer is substandard, they are informed what deficiencies they need to remedy, given time (and training, if necessary) to improve, and evaluated again within six months. If that evaluation is also lacking they have one last chance, then they are dismissed. Every evaluation after the first has a faculty union representative there as well, to ensure the procedures are followed.
Here is what happens:
Lecturers are rarely inspected. Some haven't been inspected in over a decade. Some who want to be inspected have discovered that the administrators are 'too busy'.
I'm arguing that sitting in on three classes, writing three reports, and having three meetings is hardly onerous. It is certainly less onerous than tutoring a failing student (something my college expects every lecturer to do, if necessary—we must document that tutoring was offered and refused so the student can't use 'lack of help' to dispute a failure).
If a professor never evaluated students and passed everyone because she "didn't have time" to look at their work, who's fault would it be if the students turned out not to have learned very much? The professor's, or the system's?
I think one problem is that administrators (at least around here) get promoted by starting new programs and supporting initiatives rather than actually running the college. Running the college properly is assuming, but not rewarded, so just like a professor who slights classroom work to serve on high-visibility committees, there is a tendency to ignore that part of the job. Plus, of course, it is unpleasant to tell someone they are doing a bad job, and many people are very good at procrastinating unpleasant tasks.
Lets rephrase this question shall we?
"Here's what I'd like to know: in your time in higher education, have you ever heard of...
...a college president being fired by the board for blowing all the money on a new (gym... football stadium... basketball arena.... conference center... insert your choice of non-academic edifice complex here...)
... a winning big ten football coach being fired for violating NCAA recruiting rules?"
... a winning midwest basketball coach fired for physically and verbally abusing his players?"
... a mid-level academic manager fired for incompetence?
or, "Here's what I'd like to know: in your time in the private sector, how many incompetent people have been fired after the boss went through the whole sequence of disciplinary proceedings..."
If your answer was "few to none" to any of these questions then maybe this isn't the right question to be asking about tenure. Maybe its a straw-man.
I work at a regional, comprehensive, state university. There is no post-tenure review here. I've been at four different universities, including my grad programs--two R1s, a R2, and my current institution. No tenured professor in any department I've been part of had ever been fired.
No tenured professor at my current uni has been fired in the time I've been here, and I've never heard of it happening in the past. Again, there is no post-tenure review, so there is no mechanism in place to do so. Oh, and there is no union, either.
I have a colleague who is quite elderly; let's just say colleague has been able to collect Social Security since before first-year students were born. My colleague cannot do the job anymore. Hasn't done research in years (and we're expected to do a significant amount). The teaching is awful; materials are grossly outdated, assignments aren't returned, and colleague's treatment of students is awful. But colleague refuses to retire, and there is no mechanism to force colleague to retire.
I wish to God we had post-tenure review. The situation is not fair to the students or, quite frankly, the other faculty who end up picking up the slack for colleague.
In my present job? Three in the last three years. And it's a small company. This is not unusual in my part of private-sector-land.
Also, you're deliberately missing the point of the question. Firing a successful football coach for recruitment violations is not termination for sucking at his job. That's the question at hand. The issue isn't "can people be fired at all," but "can tenured professors (not adjuncts or grad students or tenure-track, but tenured) for being terrible at their jobs?" For ethical violations, sure, it's not unheard-of. But for retiring on the job? For screwing the students metaphorically instead of literally? How often does that happen? Working yourself up into a lather over unlike cases does nothing but add cheap and inappropriate outrage. Like comparisons to like, please.
In five years, none. Many were let go when the whole division was closed, but the competent lost their jobs too. The company president, who turned out to have falsified his credentials and who made the bad decisions that led to the closures, had his contract bought out for several million dollars.
That's actually a very relevant point. People in academia often assume that people in the private sector, lacking tenure protection, are always in danger of being fired; both my father and my colleagues were of this impression when I left academia, for example. But - at least in professional fields - people don't lose their jobs due to "incompetence" (unless it is criminal or amounts to actually not showing up); they lose their jobs when the firm has a bad year and needs to reduce headcount, or the firm is bought and redundant positions are removed. But, like PM, I can't say that I've actually personally seen anyone actually fired for incompetence in the private sector, either.
It doesn't happen indiscriminately, but it happens.
I've just seen only one fired for incompetence. I freely admit that this may bias my view of tenure.
(A) That firing is a sign of a successful organization; and
(B) That private-sector organizations analogous to high schools and colleges routinely fire employees for nonquantifiable low performance.
Both of these are false. Firing is not a sign of success, but a sign of failure. Usually, it means that a candidate wasn't vetted properly. It is very rare for people to change personality overnight; if someone has worked in an organization for five years, why would you need to fire them at the drop of a hat?
And if you look at the private sector, you'll see that the vast majority of firings are concentrated among low-level employees. McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and call centers fire people all the time. That's because these are bad, low-paid jobs, and anyone who can get a better job generally does so, so these employers are stuck with people who don't have any better options. You'll also see people being let go for low performance where there are clear and specific metrics - sales is the most obvious of these. But in most professional careers, that is not the case. Almost everyone in the private sector is subject to layoffs for economic reasons, but firings for performance reasons are relatively rare. Sure, people below the executive level will get kicked out for gross misbehavior (especially if it's the kind of thing that risks getting the company sued), but if someone is simply a sub-par performer, they are unlikely to have the axe fall unless it falls on the whole division (or company).
This is one reason why abolition of tenure is a bad and insulting idea. By saying that managers need to have the right to fire college professors at the drop of a hat, you're saying that college professors shouldn't be treated like other educated professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.) but like fry cooks at McDonalds.
The reason I make the distinction is because it is a lot easier to "prove" that a Grand Jury has indicted someone than it is to prove someone slept with a student. Further, all of the costs of investigating and prosecuting the case fall on someone else. This last bit has to be the reason resignations are so common. It saves money on both sides.
JMG@9:06AM mixes up "not hired" with "fired". Plenty of people get "not hired" because of fit. They also might not be granted tenure because of "fit". Given that the organization has made the choice to (a) hire someone and (b) grant them tenure after 3 to 7 years of working with them in a given program, management would have to be pretty incompetent to suddenly discover a lack of "fit". Ditto for making a long-term hire for a short-term goal. On this, I agree completely with what I see JoshG wrote recently.
If your system works correctly, you should be hiring people who will earn tenure, and the people who make it through your filter and EARN tenure should continue to do the job as well or better than when they were hired.
Nothing makes me angrier than hearing a public school superintendent saying they (he) give tenure just for timed served. He should be sued for not doing his job.
I've been in academia (CC) for five years and the two tenured faculty who don't come to work have not been fired. One is "retiring" this year and there was talk about a very harsh closed door meeting before the announcement was made. The prof. who's leaving has been not showing up for classes for well over a decade according to people who have been here longer than myself.
I know of two cases. In my department, a senior faculty member was fired/forced to resign for drunk driving (with a fatality). That one was obvious and easy.
At my partner's institution, a senior faculty member was fired for a loooong list of non-criminal offenses, spanning many years (hostile and inappropriate behavior to students, junior faculty, visiting faculty, not showing up for a week of classes, etc.). But it took a looong time, and the institution gave her every opportunity to reform and stay. Finally it came down to the faculty member's unwillingness to be medically/mentally evaluated and get help.
So I guess my anecdotal experience suggests it's rare? Except I haven't been in the profession that long (and only really know these two small departments), and I've already heard of two cases.
It has not been around long enough (10 years?) to see the long term effect, or if the process has teeth. However, it has definitely helped accelerate at least one retirement.