Friday, March 18, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Post-Tenure Review

Following up on yesterday’s post, a regular correspondent writes:

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.

This article mentions the dismissal of a tenured professor, Denis Rancourt:
I have seen it, at least once, but it was more of a suggestion: "You're eligible for retirement. Why don't you take it right now?" The handwriting was on the wall, and the prof was smart enough to pack up, pretend it was her idea, and go.

Students were VERY relieved.
I've worked in my state's system for 14 years. Six as a full time faculty member and eight as another role in an entirely different location and department (not higher ed). I will say that it is very difficult to fire anyone in my state's system, not just tenured faculty, due to the level of documentation needed.
At my undergrad alma mater (a SLAC), it happened occasionally, usually for gross incompetence. The incidents that I remember bordered on illegality, but were probably not prosecutable (although as a student, I wouldn't have known all the details).

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.
At my community college I know of a tenured professor who was eased out the door after a negative review. It was labeled as "early retirement," but he had been notified that dismissal procedures would be invoked if he did not leave under his own power.

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.
I know one tenured prof who was fired, for looking at (a lot of) porn at work, because the new college president was quite the Puritan. It was affecting neither his publishing nor his teaching. (It was at least tangentially related to his teaching duties, where there is a mandatory unit in the shared syllabus on porn and free speech.)

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 will assume that by "criminal" you mean that someone was arrested and/or convicted of a crime that led to the resignation or firing. (I have seen those, where the time required to terminate the job ranged from weeks to months rather than years.)

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.
I agree with CCPhysicist—you're unlikely to hear of these unless you're in the loop.

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.
CCPhysicist: Original correspondent here. By "criminal," I mean activity that may or may not involve the authorities, but are beyond a doubt ethically wrong and in violation of well-known rules and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. There are no laws against professors bedding students, for example, but plenty of rules.

(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.
As many respondets have noted, finding examples of this are difficult, and it's almost impossible to get anything with names and dates attached. So use any of this with caution.

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...
To Anon 6:30: If in your twenty years only one admin ever put the wheels in motion for termination of a gross incompetent, does that impugn the administrators or the system itself?

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.
At a SLAC I worked at a few years ago, a tenured professor was fired for extreme lack of collegiality. I was under the impress that this lack may have bordered on criminal, as in threatening colleagues, but I wasn't completely in the loop.

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.
While I did manage to have a tenured faculty member removed, I cannot tell any of the details as this was stipulated in the dismissal agreement. It was not the result of a post tenure review.
I saw two instances of termination or other significant punishment during my time as a lecturer at a satellite campus of our state's flagship. We had one lecturer who was let go for multiple years of poor teaching performance. This person did not have tenure, but was full-time employed (i.e. not an adjunct). I also saw a full professor forced to step down from a prominent research post for publicly impugning the academic integrity of another professor's work. This person had also been forced to switch departments a decade earlier because of similar clashes with other professors.

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.
Counterpoint: I've worked in the private sector for years, and I've only seen one person fired for incompetence there, either.
One thing that strikes me in the above posts isn't that tenured profs have been removed somehow (it must've happened somewhere, somehow, sometime) but the severity of the circumstances in each case. A few stories mention possible criminal behaviour, and others several years of incompetence. Indeed, from what I've read here even formally proceeding with removing a professor is a huge effort, let alone following it through either ending in termination or resignation. It seems like the idea of letting a prof go because she "doesn't fit with our organization" or some other minor but notable issues isn't even on the radar.

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.
If in your twenty years only one admin ever put the wheels in motion for termination of a gross incompetent, does that impugn the administrators or the system itself?

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.
"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?"

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.
Going anonymous for this one...

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.
Matt_L: " your time in the private sector, how many incompetent people have been fired after the boss went through the whole sequence of disciplinary proceedings..."

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.
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...

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.
At my old CC: don't know of any. But in 10 yrs of private sector, before & after my CC years, I can think of two instances. One involved an incompetent jerk who was fired for sexually harassing a volunteer. The other was the head of the organization, who the board allowed to leave quietly after fiscal mismanagement, or that's what I heard after I left. She runs a similar organization now, which boggles me.
"Counterpoint: I've worked in the private sector for years, and I've only seen one person fired for incompetence there, either."

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.
At the private company I work for, I've seen several people fired for not being high performers, i.e., code for being somewhat incompetent at their jobs.

It doesn't happen indiscriminately, but it happens.
I want to make clear that I've seen lots of people fired in the private sector.

I've just seen only one fired for incompetence. I freely admit that this may bias my view of tenure.
Whenever people talk about loosening the standards for firing educators, there seem to be two unspoken assumptions:
(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.
Anonymous@6:40AM -

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.
To the posters who have commented that people in non-academic jobs are let go for economic reasons, rather than performance: this is true, but only up to a point. I have survived two rounds of layoffs in three years, and both times the people who were let go were considered by many to be low performers. So while I have not seen anyone fired specifically for incompetence, I have seen several people whose incompetence or poor attitude likely led them to let go once the money was tight.
I only worked in industry for two years but I saw someone fired for, basically, not getting to work on time. The work done by the person was solid and efficiently completed.
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.
Coming to this late. I'm a youngish faculty member several years into at my first job, at a regional comprehensive; my partner works at a similar institution. Both campuses are unionized.

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.
As a late, late comment, I would like to add that I think that termination for any type of teaching role (elementary, secondary and beyond) should be relatively uncommon, if not rare, in a well-functioning system. Under most circumstances, having a good employee on staff in a particular role for 5+ years is a very good sign, but exceptions happen. I don't think that any teacher should be able to be fired "at the drop of a hat", but they shouldn't be completely immovable either.
At my R1 we have post-tenure review every 5 years. If it goes bad, a plan is supposedly developed and evaluated after 3 more years. Supposedly poor evaluation after these 3 years can lead to dismissal.

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.
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