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JAMES GALBRAITH Post-Tenure Review Blues Like the Austin American-Statesman, I get more conservative as the issue gets closer to home. I back the socialists in Europe, the liberals in Washington, and Democrats in Texas. But at the University where I work, I favor discipline, hard work, tough standards, and existing institutions. Such as tenure, for instance. The Texas Legislature, in the person of Mt. Pleasant Republican Senator Bill Ratliff, is causing worry and turmoil with a proposal that would require something called annual “post-tenure review.” Ratliff’s idea would place responsibility for this review in the hands of faculty and students. University of Texas Chancellor Bill Cunningham has made a counter-offer, whose essence is a five-year review cycle, with a process involving faculty and, if needed, outside referees. It is not as though post-tenure review is a new or even a threatening idea. In my school, we prepare three reports each year. We are evaluated each year, by a committee of faculty peers, and eligibility for pay increases depends on ranking. The difference is that under the new proposals there would be the possibility of dismissal if the review process goes badly two years running. Technically, this would not be the end of tenure. But it would look a lot like the beginning of the end. There are good liberal reasons to oppose this. Tenure protects academic freedom. It discourages extremist political and religious groups from ganging up on professors. And it is part of what makes for a serious university in Americaif you care about recruiting top faculty to Texas in the future. And the fact is, tenure is not mainly a liberal institution, but mainly a conservative one. It protects quality and preserves a hierarchy of authority. Right-thinking conservatives, who really care about standards, discipline, traditional values, and teaching, should speak up against proposals that might compromise the tenure system. Here’s why. First, tenure is efficient. Professors love security and work for lower salaries than we might have earned elsewherein exchange for secure jobs. But this is only part of it. Faculty also work harder because of tenure. My colleagues do a great many tedious university chores, for no extra pay, chores that are neither research nor teaching and that they could neglect without penalty. They do it because they expect to be around for a long time, because collegial relations matter to them, because they feel loyal to the institution, and because they don’t think the paid staff would do it right. In this way, tenure saves big money, for the University and for the State of Texas. Absent tenure, universities would have to pay top faculty the way investment banks pay top traders. And they would get the same kind of loyalty and volunteerismnone at all. The suggestion that student evaluations should become part of the formal basis for dismissal of professors sounds like throwback from the days” of the counterculture. But if our state’s leading conservatives force this one through, the consequence is plain. Grading will be corrupted. Professors who feel at risk, for whatever reason, will make a simple bargain with their students: an “A” for an “A”. Faculty with principles, who refuse to offer that bargain, will be taking a risk with their careers. Teaching will suffer for another reason: competition for assignments. Small optional seminars get better student ratings than required intro classes. Professors with tenure those large and risky classes than they are now. A five-year renewal process, for its part, will weaken existing standards for that initial tenure decision. Right now, tenure is tough to get. Junior faculty are given an intensive review after five or six years of teaching and research, with detailed reports from peers inside and outside the University. In weak cases, one often hears the argument that a struggling young faculty member will surely become productive, “if only” he or she is given a few more years. The prospect of a five-year review will make this apologetic argument stronger. Periodic recertification presents another problem: faculty likely won’t cooperate with it. I would not sit on such committees; can you imagine doing this, and then leaving Texas for some other university, with such a thing on your record? Would any self-respecting professor outside the state of Texas agree to write post-tenure reviews of Texas faculty? I don’t think so. Practically, the burden would fall on small groups of in-state collaborators. And who would collaborate? The frightened bunnies who themselves feel most at risk. Do university faculties have poor performers on them? Of course. Can a university get rid of poor performers? The answer is yes, even if they are tenured. I have seen it happen. There is often an element of personal tragedy in such cases, and usually the humiliating formal procedures, which already exist, are not used. Dealing with such situations, preferably with tact and discretion, is what academic deans are hired to do. The pre-screening of colleagues for dismissal is not a proper role for faculty members; to make it a duty would poison the internal atmosphere in many departments. Are there are ways to improve faculty performance? Yes: rigorous annual merit review is a very good thing. If such reviews are not already universal, the Legislature can insist on them. Student course evaluations are a spur to better teaching, particularly if they are published. University presidents should also hold academic deans and department chairs to account for the quality of the programs they manage. But the ideas of making tenure condi. tional on annual reviews by faculty and students or on a five-year recertification are half-baked. Regents who really care about standards in Texas universities should send both proposals back to the drawing boards. And legislators who care about higher education in Texas should keep their powder dry for the time being. James K. Galbraith won the Texas Excellence in Teaching Award in 1990. OCTOBER ,11, 1996 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19