Opinion: Georgia’s university leaders don’t appear to value teachers

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Concerns mount that COVID-19 and tenure policies endanger prestige of campuses

Georgia leaders insist they value education yet increasingly they don’t seem to value educators.

That disconnect was clear in the state’s response to COVID-19. The governor declined to mandate masks in schools. The University System of Georgia ordered professors, even those with compromised health, back into classrooms without the option to require masks. The most recent flashpoint is the dilution of due process for university and college faculty.

The Board of Regents voted in October to change its post-tenure review process. Teresa MacCartney, the acting chancellor, insists the board’s changes did not weaken tenure. But a searing new report by the American Association of University Professors disagrees.

The report, likely the first step to official censure by the influential AAUP, accuses MacCartney of disingenuity, noting, “… the acting chancellor does not deny that the regents’ revisions to the post-tenure review policy removed what is widely understood as academic due process … Absent academic due process, what has survived is tenure in name only.”

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Among the AAUP’s conclusions, the University System administration and regents “have effectively abolished tenure in Georgia’s public colleges and universities” and did so “without meaningfully involving the faculty and over the strong objections voiced by the system’s critical faculty governance bodies.”

In her response to the AAUP, MacCartney said, “I wholly and strongly disagree with the report’s conclusions. … Most tenured USG faculty are performing at a high level and are indeed providing high-quality educational experiences for students. However, within our faculty ranks, we have a small number of faculty who are tenured and who are not fulfilling the expectations of delivering a high-quality educational experience as judged by their peers. It is unacceptable for an institution to have knowledge of a faculty member’s unsatisfactory performance over time and not address it.”

The AAUP report contains a warning that ought to concern any parent who wants a credible public university system for their children. The report states: “In removing tenure protections from the USG post-tenure review policy, the board of regents has sharply differentiated the University System of Georgia from its peer systems, but not in a manner that is likely to enhance its academic excellence, its reputation, or its competitive advantage.”

“It’s a black eye for us and a hit on our reputation,” said University of North Georgia professor Matthew Boedy, president of the Georgia Conference of the AAUP. Boedy expects the AAUP to move to censure the University System in early 2022, a dreaded status that marks Georgia campuses as operating outside recognized principles of academic freedom and tenure.

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Tenure has always been a thorn to state legislatures, especially in the South with its historic aversion to workplace protections. On the right, tenure has been assailed as lifetime job security that leads to diminished productivity. On the left, it is seen as a stanchion of privilege since the tenured faculty rank is whiter and more male than the larger professoriate.

Around 45.1% of full-time faculty at U.S. colleges have tenure, down from 56.2% in1993-1994. Tenure is awarded to professors who undergo a lengthy and multistep review process that considers teaching evaluations, university service, research and publications. Professors are accorded tenure for much the same reason that federal judges are — to insulate them from political interference and the machinations of administrators, donors and legislators.

In the past few years, state leaders have not endeared themselves to K-12 and higher education with many of their policies and budget cuts. That fracture widened during COVID-19.

For an example, Georgia College & State University faculty member James Schiffman recently resigned, leaving a job he loved because he felt the COVID-19 protocols were too lax. GCSU declined to comment, but acknowledged Schiffman’s resignation.

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“I didn’t want to leave. I really enjoyed the teaching, but I am not going to do something I think is not in the best interest of students,” Schiffman said.

In reporting on faculty protests over a lack of COVID-19 precautions, I sometimes get pushback from readers who contend that if professors don’t like the USG policies, they should quit. The problem is professors have quit. A colleague of Schiffman’s resigned at the start of the semester over COVID-19 concerns.

Schiffman regrets his resignation leaves his department “in a world of hurt. I felt I really had no choice. The system didn’t give me the option of setting reasonable safety guidelines for my students.”