Georgia’s University System Takes On Tenure

The Board of Regents has given its universities the power to fire tenured professors without faculty input. Now some fear that academic freedom is threatened, too.,

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In a direct challenge to the hallowed tradition of tenure, Georgia’s public university system will now let its colleges’ administrations remove a tenured professor with little to no faculty input.

The Board of Regents on Wednesday approved the new policy, which is the only one of its kind in the country, according to the American Association of University Professors. The move is being criticized by many professors, politicians and advocates for academic freedom as a threat to tenure, which is intended to protect faculty from dismissal without just cause, allowing them to develop thoughts or ideas that may be unpopular.

“Georgia is a huge outlier now, because that’s the whole point of tenure: it includes due process protections,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the professors’ association, which is threatening to censure the university system. “There should now be a new word for it in Georgia, because tenure will not mean tenure there.”

The Board of Regents, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has maintained that the policy change will streamline the process of removing faculty members who do not adequately contribute to a university, and the 19-member board unanimously approved the new measure on Wednesday. In the fall of 2020, there were more than 5,800 tenured faculty in the entire Georgia university system.

“Our intent with these policy changes is to promote faculty development and accountability as well as to align these with our mission of student success,” Erin Hames, a board member, said on Tuesday.

Previously, the process for removing tenured professors included a peer review process with other faculty. Now, professors at 25 of its 26 public universities can be removed after consecutively failing two annual reviews. If a professor also fails to complete an improvement plan after the reviews, then that alone would be justification for termination. The new policy also included an additional benchmark — student success — in evaluating a tenured professor’s performance.

The new policy is the result of months of back-and-forth between professors and the Board of Regents, the governing body of the state university system, since it announced last year that it would establish a working group to review the post-tenure review process.

In a report published by the working group in June, the group cited several shortcomings in the existing process including time concerns, onerous documentation and that “very few low-performing faculty members are identified and remediated.”

The report also stated that there was a “need for accountability” with the tenure process and that, in its form at the time, the Board of Regents had difficulty having “oversight.”

Last month, the board published a draft policy that included a clause stating that a tenured professor could be removed for reasons “other than for cause,” which generated concern leading up to the approval of its final policy.

While that language is no longer in the approved policy, critics remain concerned that the changes could squash the academic freedom of professors who publish research or speak out in ways that go against the beliefs of the board, or the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp.

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More than 1,500 professors in the state have signed a petition opposing the policy.Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

“The faculty voice is now being heard less and less,” said Matthew Boedy, a tenured associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, a public university, and the president of the Georgia conference of the Association of University Professors.

He considers the decision, he said, to be a “deep ideological attack on higher education,” adding, “Every person involved in higher education will recognize the headline that tenure died in Georgia today.”

Others are concerned that the new changes will affect the state’s ability to both recruit and retain faculty and students at its public universities, which include Georgia Tech, one of the top public research institutions in the country.

“People are not going to want to go to a place where something like this has happened,” Dr. Mulvey said. “So students and teachers will suffer as a result of this decision.”

By Tuesday, more than 1,500 professors in the state had signed a petition against the new policy. Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic candidate for governor, also publicly voiced her disapproval of the measure in the hours before the meeting adjourned.

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

The decision comes at the same time that the state’s leadership is receiving pushback from some faculty members over a ban on mask mandates at academic institutions. The board stood by the ban.

“We continue to be in alignment with the governor’s expectations and requirements for state agencies through this pandemic,” said Teresa MacCartney, the acting chancellor of the university system.

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