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A Post-Tenure Review Policy with Real Consequences

Promotion, Tenure, and Evaluation

A Post-Tenure Review Policy with Real Consequences

In 1999 Iowa State University’s faculty senate approved a post-tenure review policy that required each tenured professor to be reviewed at least every seven years, but without a method of enforceable consequences the policy was mostly symbolic—a compromise between the board of regents’ call for greater accountability and the faculty agreeing to a policy with the fewest consequences possible. A budget crisis and the board of regents’ subsequent demand for a stronger policy prompted a reexamination of the issue. The result: a formative, peer-led, post-tenure review process that holds faculty accountable for their performance.

The budget crisis—a 25 percent decrease in state funding over a five-year period starting in 2008—made it crucial to ensure that all faculty members were pulling their weight. “When no one was getting a raise and there was a year in which there were mandatory furloughs, many faculty wanted to make sure everyone was ‘fully employed,’” says Elizabeth Hoffman, economics professor and former executive vice president and provost at Iowa State University. “[In addition,] the board of regents was pushing for a stronger post-tenure review policy, and the faculty senate leadership wanted to lead the process this time and not be forced into a policy not supported by the senate.”

Shrinking state revenues from a struggling economy certainly contributed to the budget problem, but public perception played a part as the legislature considered where to make cuts.

“[T]here was a greater outcry as to whether or not professors were actually working to their abilities. Unfortunately, I think the general public has no real, clear understanding of the importance of tenure and, truthfully, I don’t think they understand what professors’ responsibilities include. … There needed to be a better way to communicate what it is that professors do and what value professors bring to this state,” says Micheal Owen, agronomy professor and former faculty senate president.

Owen formed a task force to study post-tenure review policies at other institutions. “As I began to become more aware of the situation and what was going on at other universities and, more important, how Iowa State University was being perceived by the general public, I recognized that we needed to be much more accountable for our tenure than we had been,” he says.

The task force found that the best post-tenure review policies 

  • are formative,
  • provide an opportunity for the faculty member to do a self-study,
  • include review by peers, and
  • provide an opportunity for the faculty member to address areas found to be less than excellent.

Faculty concerns

Not surprising, there was a great deal of discussion of the consequences of a stronger post-tenure review policy. The faculty were particularly concerned about the amount of work involved in doing a self-study and fear that it’s a step toward eliminating tenure.

To help allay these concerns, Owen produced a report based on the literature on post-tenure review policies in order to address faculty concerns and found the outcomes at institutions with post-tenure review policies “very encouraging.”

The research indicated that about 95 percent of professors who underwent post-tenure review were performing at least adequately. And 95 percent of the 5 percent found to be performing inadequately initiated a plan of improvement. The rest who were unwilling or unable to improve left their institutions.

The policy

Under the new post-tenure review policy, each tenured faculty member is to be reviewed at least every seven years, based on his or her Position Responsibility Statement (PRS), which outlines the individual faculty member’s roles. The PRS is a contract that is negotiated between the faculty member and the department chair. Many PRSs are fairly general, stating that the faculty member will engage in teaching, research, and service. Others are more specific, providing details on items such as generating sufficient funding to support one’s research agenda or outlining specific percentages of time to devote to each activity or to focus on a specific area of research.

“Putting a statement about research area in the PRS can protect a faculty member if the department chair changes or other faculty members in the department don’t agree with the research area,” Hoffman says. “The PRS has become a very important piece of information in the promotion and tenure process. Faculty members who have not fulfilled the terms of their PRSs have been denied tenure, and the denials have been upheld in the appeal process. More importantly, it has led to considerable differentiation of faculty roles leading to tenure and promotion.”

Faculty members can request a post-tenure review as long as it has been at least five years since the previous one.

If a faculty member’s performance is found to be unsatisfactory in two consecutive annual reviews, he or she will be subject to a post-tenure review.

Each faculty member who is up for post-tenure review conducts a self-study. The language of the post-tenure review policy is somewhat open in order to accommodate the different cultures and practices among the various academic departments. Each department decides how close to a promotion vitae the document becomes, but “in general it’s not quite the same level of detail as what we see in promotion and tenure documents,” Owen says.

Owen underwent post-tenure review in the policy’s first year of implementation. If done right, preparing for review is a lot of work, he says. “You need to go through and collect all the information and present it in some form of report. It requires a lot of self-reflection, but I found it to be a very good process because it gave me a chance to sit down and ask, ‘What am I doing? Am I doing it well? What can I do to improve?’”

Peers review the faculty member’s performance within each aspect of the PRS, and each aspect is evaluated as superior, meeting expectations, or below expectations. Regardless of the faculty member’s rating, each review includes recommendations for improvement.

A finding of superior performance in all aspects of one’s PRS is accompanied by a salary increase that is separate from and in addition to merit increases. (Offering a special salary increase for superior performance may have helped get faculty buy-in, Hoffman says.) When an associate professor receives a superior recommendation he or she is encouraged to prepare a promotion packet for the following year.

If the faculty member is found to be meeting expectations, the review will include recommendations on how to achieve superior performance.

If the faculty member’s performance is found to be below expectations, he or she will work with the department chair and the chair of the review committee to develop a detailed action plan to improve performance, including the justification for the plan, a timetable, and possible consequences for not achieving the goals set forth in the plan.

Failure to meet the expectations in the action plan can result in a finding of unacceptable performance of duty, which initiates another series of peer reviews that are external to the academic department and can lead to sanctions up to and including termination.

The “unacceptable performance of duty” policy is intentionally separate from the post-tenure review policy. “What was critical to the faculty senate at Iowa State was that, at least based on the information I was able to find from the literature, less than 1 percent of the faculty ever underwent any administrative action resulting in their removal from tenure,” Owen says. “And so what I said to them was that this post-tenure review policy is a formative policy only, and the other policy that allows peer review and ultimate removal will never be enforced because most of the people who get into that position read the tea leaves and leave.”

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