Opinion: Georgia’s tenure review process is arduous, thorough and working

Professors from several Georgia universities rally Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, on the Georgia Tech campus against changes to the state system’s post-tenure review process The changes were approved by the Board Regents. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
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Professors from several Georgia universities rally Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, on the Georgia Tech campus against changes to the state system’s post-tenure review process The changes were approved by the Board Regents. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

UGA professor emeritus: Attack on tenure by Board of Regents will cripple faculty searches

In a guest column, Peter Smagorinsky, a University of Georgia Distinguished Research Professor of English Education, Emeritus, shares his concerns about the weakening of tenure by the Board of Regents.

Smagorinsky spent 14 years teaching in K-12 schools and more than 30 years in university teacher education programs. In this guest column, he explains the path to tenure, a path he says is long, intense and not easily traveled.

While this blog has featured several guest columns defending tenure, Smagorinsky goes deeper on what the process involves and how tenure is not handed out like an after-dinner mint.

By Peter Smagorinsky

The Georgia Board of Regents has provided a solution for something that wasn’t a problem. And now the Regents have created a problem for which there may not be a solution.

Earlier this month, the Regents decided to create new rules governing tenure in the state’s universities. There was no special reason for their initiative. There was no crisis of professors not meeting their responsibilities. The Regents simply manufactured a crisis and came to the rescue.

The story has been well-covered in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reporter Eric Stirgus provided updates before the meeting that produced the new policy, and made additional reports once the plan was approved. AJC Get Schooled published an essay in advance of the meeting by Matthew Boedy of the University of North Georgia that is replete with terms like “disaster,” “threat,” “attack,” and “death.” Following the vote, Get Schooled printed an essay by University of Georgia Distinguished University Professor Cas Mudde in which he lamented the changes and described a set of consequences that he argues will lead to catastrophic changes in the quality of education at Georgia universities.

The story has gotten national coverage as well, with reports appearing in the New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, Forbes, Time, USA Today, and countless other outlets. The Georgia Board of Regents can’t hide from this decision, which a retired professor from my UGA department wrote me describing as “a terrible thing to witness, especially after spending a career here.”

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Dr. Peter Smagorinsky

Dr. Peter Smagorinsky
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Dr. Peter Smagorinsky

I think it might help the Georgia voter and citizen to understand what tenure is to come to an informed opinion on this development. Although several of the AJC reports and opinion essays have provided summaries, I think some further clarification might help.

The basic idea with tenure is that it provides a faculty member with a degree of job security following an initial trial period of five to seven years. During this period, colleagues and administrators have an opportunity to evaluate a beginning professor’s job performance in three areas: teaching, research, and service. These reviews come through several means. Faculty evaluate one another through informal, everyday observations and interactions in a variety of settings. They undergo annual reviews for merit pay that ultimately become part of the promotion review.

After three years (at least at UGA), they are subjected to a formal review of their initial trial period. This review includes documentation provided by the candidates concerning their performance in teaching, research, and service. This statement is then verified by colleagues and administrators. Once this dossier is assembled, the case goes out to external review provided by people at higher ranks at other universities.

These reviewers are typically asked to state whether the person is meeting institutional standards and matching up well in contrast with peers at other universities. Often, the reviewers state whether or not the candidate would be awarded tenure at their own institution. In this process, “letterhead” matters. That is, the reviews are typically solicited from faculty at peer or “aspirational” institutions; that is, those UGA would like to elevate itself to become more like.

Assuming the individual is retained after this review, they may go up for tenure two to four years later if the faculty agrees that it is warranted. The process is similar to the third-year review: the candidate provides documentation of teaching, research, and service achievements; formal discussions take place among faculty of higher rank; and external letters are provided evaluating the candidate’s performance.

For tenure to be awarded, the candidate must go through a departmental review, a review by the College Tenure and Promotion Committee, a review by the university Tenure and Promotion Committee, and approval by university administrators and then the Regents. It’s hard to squeeze a shaky case through a process that includes so many levels of assessment both from within and without the institution.

Once tenure is granted, faculty continue to have annual evaluations in teaching, research, and service. In addition, they are all subjected to post-tenure reviews conducted at five-year intervals. These can result in a reassignment of budgeted time, or in radical cases, removal from the faculty, if the candidate is not productive. The criteria used for these judgments mirror those of the prior review processes.

I know this process well. I’ve gone through it in my own career at each of these stages; have helped evaluated many colleagues in my department; have chaired the UGA College of Education Tenure and Promotion Committee; and have written 120 external evaluations of candidates at other universities.

In addition, I’ve gone through heavily vetted reviews for promotion to Full Professor, and again for the designation of Distinguished Research Professor, which I held until retirement. One thing I think I can state clearly about having been a university professor: There has been no lack of evaluation of my performance.

Yet the Regents want more. They want to be able to terminate me if they feel like it, no matter what knowledgeable people in my field think.

Let me provide one example of the sort of problem that could follow from the policy. About a decade ago, when I chaired our program at UGA, we had far more applications than we had placement for, and so had to reject about 15 students, something we really hated to do. Among those not admitted, it turned out, was the niece of a Regent, who called a UGA administrator to complain and get the decision overturned. The administrator in turn contacted me to state the Regent’s case. My response was swift: Never tell me again how to do admissions in my program.

I was a tenured Full Professor at the time, and so could bark back at people who believed they could meddle in decisions our faculty made based on our knowledge and judgment. I suspect that under the new policy, the Regent would have tried to get me fired, because I’m not part of his good-old-boy network where what matters most is knowing or being related to someone with influence. And under the new policy, it probably would have been successful.

I’ve been speaking about my experiences at the University of Georgia, one of the state’s research universities. I don’t know exactly what the procedures are used by the other universities in the system but do know that the many universities in the state have different missions and therefore different budgeting structures and faculty expectations.

The standard teaching load at UGA is what is known as 2-2: two classes in the fall, two in the spring. That surely sounds easy if you believe the job only involves teaching, especially if you think that good teaching is easy to do.

UGA provides “budgeted time,” however, in teaching and research, and to a lesser degree, service (such as writing external reviews for other universities, doing committee work, reviewing articles for journals, serving professional organizations, etc.). The research time is dedicated to producing scholarship: books, chapters, articles, and other work that advances knowledge in our fields. Ideally these publications are in prestigious, widely read, and widely referenced outlets. And just as ideally, the publications themselves are widely read and widely referenced by other scholars, which serves as one indication of their impact. The term impact occurs frequently in the process. No impact, no tenure.

Typically, the universities considered “regional,” often designated by a direction (West Georgia) or city (Valdosta State), are far more heavily weighted to the teaching mission, and so have higher teaching loads, often 4-4; and fewer demands for publication.

Getting tenure at Georgia Tech and getting tenure at Georgia Southwestern State University involve different expectations. And so, tenure is awarded according to different expectations at different sorts of institutions, in response to their specific missions and budget structures.

No matter if you’re at Georgia Southern or Georgia State, the new policy will allow what might have happened to me: termination by a pouting, over-entitled Regent for not giving his family members special treatment. Or perhaps I might get fired for writing things in the AJC on the rights of transgender people, as I’ve done, if the Regent personally doesn’t respect their lives. Or I might find myself out of work for teaching a class that explores questions of human diversity, as I did for many years, if any Regents believe that validating other lives threatens their status at the top of the social heap.

This peril to current faculty across the state is one problem. More critical to the future of Georgia’s universities is how the recruitment of future faculty will be crippled by this policy. Georgia already works at a disadvantage with its rule forbidding sabbaticals, something I never had in my career. Many of my peers in other states have had several. They can’t believe I’ve stayed in a system that denies them.

Taking away tenure’s protection of academic freedom will make it very difficult to persuade a great teacher/researcher to work in our universities, when they have options to go to a state where they can teach, write, and serve without fear of reprisal from politicians and Regents.

I’m reminded of UGA football player Isaiah McKenzie, who recently shared the story that he would have gone to Notre Dame, but found that if he attended there, he would have to forgo sex. And so, he decommitted and came to Athens, where students face no such restriction.

Expect faculty prospects to make the same decision: Take the job where the work conditions are best. Who wouldn’t? The sad part is that I think that too many Regents would lament the loss of a football star much more than they would a distinguished, if controversial, faculty member.

The author of this guest piece, Dr. Peter Smagorinsky, is a retired University of Georgia professor.

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