Georgia College Professors To Face New Reviews, Regents Say

ATLANTA (AP) — Tenured professors at Georgia's public universities will face a new set of job reviews that regents say will help them improve but that some faculty members say will undercut the job protections and freedom of expression that tenure is supposed to guarantee.

Regents unanimously approved the policy Wednesday without discussion. It requires tenured faculty to undergo a review every five years. All but one of Georgia's public universities already require such reviews: Georgia Gwinnett College doesn't grant tenure. But 96% of professors pass the current evaluations with no requirement for improvement.

“We really needed to create a process that was much more effective at being able to build faculty careers across a lifetime,” Tristan Denley, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said in a Tuesday committee meeting. He described the current review process as “onerous, time-consuming, with really very little benefit.”

Opponents say the plan infringes on tenure, undermines faculty involvement in peer reviews and provides a shortcut for firing professors that could be abused. More than 1,000 faculty members across the system signed a petition against it.

“They have an intent and it is clear as it ever was: give us tenure in name only,” wrote Matthew Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor who is the president of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

If professors flunk part or all of the review, they will be required to undertake a performance improvement plan agreed to by a department chair or dean. If they refuse to cooperate or don't make enough progress, they could be penalized or fired. Also, any professor who is evaluated unfavorably in any area in an annual review will get a remediation plan and then a “corrective” post-tenure review the next year. Opponents warn that could lead to dismissal within three years of any unfavorable review.

All 25 institutions are required to develop their own policies in consultation with faculty and include due process procedures. The chancellor must approve each school’s policy. The system office will also write guidelines on what has to go into an improvement plan if a professor flunks a review.

Denley said due process and faculty involvement “were not explicit” in an earlier draft. He said that was because he always assumed faculty would be involved in drafting campus-level decisions.

The plan also requires that “student success activities" such as mentoring and advising be factored into awarding tenure and evaluating academics. The university system has focused in recent years on ensuring fewer students drop out and more graduate on time.

Until 2007, regents decided on tenure for faculty at all universities and colleges. Since then, presidents have made those decisions. The new policy says regents will take back decisions from any university "not carrying out its faculty review process in a sufficiently rigorous manner.”

It’s unclear how much will really change or how regents will judge the success of the new policy. Denley and board Chair Sachin Shailendra refused requests for interviews.

The American Association of University Professors has long opposed post-tenure review and is threatening to censure the system. A censure would have little practical effect, but would be embarrassing and could deter academics from working at the universities, the association said.

“At reputable institutions of higher education, academic freedom is protected because tenured professors can be dismissed only for reasons related to professional fitness and only after a hearing before a faculty body at which the administration must make its case that the faculty member’s conduct or performance warrants dismissal,” AAUP President Irene Mulvey said in a statement.

The uproar has played out against the background of disputes over COVID-19 policies in the university system. Regents have ordered universities to teach classes in person and to not mandate masks, vaccines or testing on campus. Those mandates prompted faculty protests.

A proposed clause that would have allowed faculty members to be fired without cause was removed from the plan passed Wednesday. It had prompted concerns that administrators could purge faculty members for disobeying system policies, such as those discouraging mask mandates.

Denley said that was not the case.

“In no way is this an attempt to create some kind of mechanism to summarily dismiss faculty without cause,” he said.

Among those weighing in against the plan was 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.

“Academic freedom guaranteed by tenure is more than a hiring gimmick,” Abrams wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Georgia cannot compete for talent or produce innovation if we undermine our public universities."

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.