Opinion: Board of Regents seeks to gut tenure

Professor: Tenure buffers faculty from political and institutional whims
The Board of Regents will take up a policy at its meeting next week at Georgia Tech that could undermine tenure, according to the conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors. (Photo/Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Molly Emerson Pratt

Credit: Molly Emerson Pratt

The Board of Regents will take up a policy at its meeting next week at Georgia Tech that could undermine tenure, according to the conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors. (Photo/Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Before I began writing about education, I never thought much about the importance of tenure on college campuses. Now, that I’ve seen the attempts by the insurance agents, real estate attorneys and loan officers in the Legislature to bend the university system to their political values, I believe tenure is worth protecting.

That conviction grew stronger after the Board of Regents, all political appointees, opted to follow the governor’s stand on masks in classrooms rather than that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is why Georgia remains one of the few public systems without any mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on public colleges and universities. Politics affects too many decisions already around higher education in this state without opening the gate wider to meddling.

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, discusses what he sees as an attempt to weaken tenure. Boedy is conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that represents the interests of college and university faculty members.

By Matthew Boedy

When I tell people I teach “rhetoric and composition,” many look at me funny because they don’t know what that is. But when I tell people I teach “reading and writing,” they nod but eventually ask “don’t college students know how to do that?” My response to that is the line I say to my students on the first day of classes: my definition of reading and writing may be different than yours.

You would probably be surprised to learn this discrepancy plays out in policy discussions at the highest levels of our university system.

In those debates, some readings are just wrong.

Let me show you an example.

I wrote last time for this blog about a new element proposed by the Board of Regents to evaluate faculty: student success. That element is being added across evaluations from new assistant professors to tenured, long-time full professors.

That last group is also evaluated every five years concerning that right and responsibility of tenure.

The responsibilities of tenure are broad. But at its heart tenure is supposed to give some freedom to professors to try out new research ideas and teaching practices. One gets tenure after a period of several years of evaluation during which a professor shows they have long-term value to a school in teaching and research. You as a parent want a professor with tenure for your child. While there are many great teachers who don’t have it and can’t even apply for it, those who have tenure prove they deserve it.

The rights of tenure protect professors from political winds and institutional whims that would threaten those teaching and research responsibilities. You and I don’t want professors fired for teaching controversial subjects or saying politically charged things. We want professors to seek knowledge and truth, unafraid where it might lead. Tenure protects what we in higher education call “academic freedom.” Students have this as well.

The right of tenure at its basic is due process. A professor with tenure can only be fired for a specific cause and in higher education, through a detailed peer review process. I wrote about that in 2020. Tenure does not mean someone cannot be fired, disciplined or otherwise held accountable. Tenure is not in place so someone can “cruise” through the balance of their career. There are procedures in place to address that.

In other proposals at their last meeting on Sept. 9, the Board of Regents aimed to end tenure. They proposed professors could be fired without cause. They also proposed an end to the due process rights tenure provides.

These changes sent shockwaves through the state. After strong faculty pushback and communications from my group, the AAUP, with the chancellor, the firing without cause language has been removed from the proposals.

But the death to due process remains within revisions to that five-year tenure review process tenured professors go through. And here is where the definition of reading comes in.

The Regents and University System of Georgia leaders say if we just read these proposals like they do, their new proposals mirror what the process is now. So, no need to criticize the changes to the process.

Dr. Mathew Boedy

Credit: Peggy Cozart

icon to expand image

Credit: Peggy Cozart

Their definition of reading is different from mine. I think once you read below, you will agree. Let’s compare the Board of Regents proposal to the tenure due process available at present.

The Regents: If a professor fails to improve “as determined by the department chair and dean after considering feedback from the appropriate group of faculty colleagues….,” then that faculty member may be fired, lose their tenure, be suspended without pay, or see a reduction in salary as determined by the president of the school. (I am quoting from revisions as proposed here.)

The current due process of tenure: If a faculty is to be fired for a specific cause they shall receive a hearing before a committee which shall include three to five “impartial faculty members appointed by” elected faculty leaders. There could be oaths, legal counsel, witnesses, cross-examination, and reliable evidence. (I am quoting from policy here.) While this committee makes a powerful recommendation, it is up to the president to decide.

Clearly these processes are not the same, no matter how the Regents want me (and you) to read it.

All these proposed changes come as a result of a report from the University System that says about 95% of professors pass their tenure review. Apparently, the Regents think that is too high. Why else would they be doing what they are doing?

They are attacking tenure from the end of a career and also the beginning. They are threatening to hand out tenure themselves. About 15 years ago, the Regents gave power to college presidents to decide tenure. Now the Regents say if tenure standards are not rigorous enough, they will decide.

That would be a disaster for Georgia, taking us back to the era of our state’s history where a demagogue governor ran roughshod over the state’s colleges and universities. Sadly, now the threat is coming from within the house. [And, hey, Board of Regents: this is also why we need an education-supporting choice for USG chancellor.]

No one has been able to explain why the Regents want to kill tenure in this fashion.

Let me take a guess. They think it is too easy to get and too easy to keep. It’s a way of thinking that certainly exists outside higher education. You may have some inkling of it yourself. The cliche of the tenured, lazy professors remains.

The Regents are holding their next meeting on October 12-13 at Georgia Tech. Maybe while on campus they can point out the problem they are trying to solve through killing tenure.

The author of this guest column, Matthew Boedy, is a professor at the University of North Georgia.