Opinion: Board of Regents ignorant of their own ignorance

Professors at Georgia Tech and several Georgia universities protest Oct. 12, 2021, on the Tech campus against proposed changes to the state's tenure review process. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
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Professors at Georgia Tech and several Georgia universities protest Oct. 12, 2021, on the Tech campus against proposed changes to the state's tenure review process. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Professor says political appointees lack background to decide tenure

In a guest column, Georgia State University professor Peter Lindsay questions how the Board of Regents — without any in-depth experience among its political appointees in teaching at the college level — is qualified to insert itself in the tenure review process.

Lindsay is a professor of political science and philosophy. He received his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Toronto and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Before coming to Georgia State, he held positions at the University of Toronto, Harvard University and the University of New Hampshire. His research focuses on matters of economic justice, as well as pedagogy in higher education. He is the author of two books, “Creative Individualism: The Democratic Vision of C. B. Macpherson” and “The Craft of University Teaching.”

By Peter Lindsay

In a previous guest column, I questioned the credentials of the current Board of Regents with respect to their ability to administer the 26 campuses of the University System of Georgia. The example I used to make that point was their COVID-19 policy, which flies in the face of both science and ethics.

Now, with their October revisions to the promotion and tenure policy, the regents have given us an even more striking example of why they are ill-fit to govern the USG.

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Dr. Peter Lindsay

Dr. Peter Lindsay
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Dr. Peter Lindsay

The revisions are somewhat complicated and their precise effect is difficult to determine, but my point can be made if we focus on one rather jarring (and, I would argue, telling) statement: “if an institution is not carrying out its faculty review process in a sufficiently rigorous manner the Board of Regents may move the authority to award tenure to the board level until institutional processes have been remediated.”

To understand the absurdity of this policy we need some context.

As any academic will tell you, perhaps our most difficult administrative task involves evaluating and assessing the teaching, research and service of our colleagues. It’s a process fraught with peril, as it often involves judgments that are far from cut and dry.

The general rule — and vague legal standard — is that one’s department colleagues are accorded deference when it comes to assessing research. After all, they are most familiar with the relevant standards of scholarship. Such familiarity typically wanes as decisions move up the ladder to administrators — deans, provosts and presidents — whose academic training is often far removed from a candidate’s.

And to be clear, disciplinary differences are legion. As a political philosopher, I have zero ability to assess the substance of an astronomer’s research, and only with some investigation could I render decisions about the quality of the journals in which they publish, the number of publications one might expect or the standards of authorship.

Teaching might be a bit easier to assess across disciplinary lines, but even here I wouldn’t be good at judging what counts as an appropriate physics course reading list, or whether a business assignment would accurately measure learning outcomes. And as a humanities scholar, I know nothing about how to teach a lab, nor how to assess the teaching done in one.

All of these difficulties raise the question of why the regents — none of whom is or has ever taught in higher education — could possibly think that they should have a say here. Not only do they lack the credentials to make decisions about individual faculty members, they lack even the knowledge of the criteria with which those decisions are made. The idea that they might claim the authority to decide tenure cases boggles the mind.

(I confess that part of me would love to be at their first meeting after they assume authority of a university’s review process. One can only imagine their horrified looks as they open the first file: “Now what?”)

The idea of such a takeover may boggle the mind, but it does not surprise — such hubris has been around for ages. In Plato’s dialogue “Apology,” Socrates learns that the Oracle of Delphi has proclaimed no one to be wiser than he. Confused, he questions a politician who was “thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself,” and in so doing discovers the nature of his own wisdom: “I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, [but] I am better off than he is — for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.”

Like the Athenian politician, the Board of Regents presents the worst form of ignorance: ignorance of ignorance. When coupled with power, the results are often disastrous.

To wit: the revised policies have put Georgia’s university system in the national spotlight — and not in a good way. My own department is currently running three job searches, and I worry that a fair number of excellent candidates, alarmed in particular by how the revisions chip away at tenure, will now think twice about applying.

We may still manage to fill the positions with good people, but such luck will not change a disturbing reality: in a misguided effort to improve Georgia’s higher education, the Board of Regents has significantly undermined it.

The author of this guest column, Peter Lindsay, teaches at Georgia State University in the area of political philosophy.

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