The University Record, September 11, 1995

Assembly meeting to feature point/counter-point on tenure

Editor’s Note: The following has been provided by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs as background for next Monday’s Senate Assembly meeting.

The Responsibilities of Tenure: Should There Be Sanctions for Failure to Perform Adequately?

At approximately 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 18th, a point/counterpoint discussion on the above question will take place. Two teams of faculty will argue this question at the Senate Assembly meeting in the fourth level Rackham Amphitheater. An open discussion will follow. Non-Senate Assembly members in the audience may participate in the discussion to the extent that time permits. This discussion will be followed by an address to the Assembly by President James J. Duderstadt. All faculty are urged to attend the discussion of tenure and the president’s address. Below are described some of the main features of the point/counterpoint discussion.

Point — George J. Brewer, professor of human genetics

By the nature of the process, most tenured faculty are destined for success, and for successful service to their institution. The granting of tenure provides a faculty member a unique opportunity to work under the principles of academic freedom, and to have a certain degree of economic security to carry out that work. That special opportunity carries with it an equal degree of responsibility. That responsibility may be summed up in two words. They are effort and productivity. In addition to these two principles of responsibility, the following general statements may be added: Faculty should: (1) Teach classes carefully and competently; (2) Be reasonably available to their students outside of class; (3) Consistently endeavor to produce high quality scholarship; (4) Be willing to provide appropriate service; and (5) Adhere to ethical behavior.

Occasionally, a tenured faculty member does not carry out his/her responsibilities adequately. The reasons for a serious fall-off in performance during a career are many. In such cases, the first course of action should be a supportive one to see if corrections can be made. If such is not possible, a system should be in place that allows sanctions. Otherwise, there is a lack of fairness, and the concept of tenure abuse develops.

Most faculty are evaluated annually by their chair or unit director, usually in keeping with setting the next year’s salary. In those occasional cases where performance falls off significantly over a period of time longer than a year, the department, unit or college should form a performance review committee for that faculty member. If the review committee finds a fall-off in performance over a significant period of time, and below the minimum performance expected of a tenured faculty member in that field, they may recommend sanctions including a freeze on raises, reduction in space, reduction in other perquisites and reduction in salary. The committee may also find that no cause for sanctions exists, or that additional time should be granted to the faculty member to restore his/her performance, and the case reviewed again at a later date.

Counterpoint — Thomas M. Dunn, professor of chemistry

In 1993 and 1994, the SACUA Standing Committee on Tenure considered the substantive issues related to the concept of tenure since, as that committee cogently stated, “neither the Regents nor the central administration nor the collegiate administrations nor any faculty group has attempted to further define the rights and responsibilities of tenure at the University of Michigan ...” (since the 1956 revision of the 1935 Regental document).

The publication, distribution and discussion of that report, “Toward a Definition of Tenure,” resulted in negative criticisms by then-Provost Whitaker both to the Senate Assembly and in his report to the Regents (May 19, 1995) in which he characterized the report as a “step backwards in the protection of academic freedom and a big step backwards in describing the obligation of tenure ...” The document was also subsequently criticized by the Executive Committee of LS&A, which expressed the concern “that the concept of tenure not be diluted so much that it loses its original connection with academic freedom and becomes, instead, synonymous with the single-minded defense of privilege against legitimate accusations of incompetence or irresponsibility.”

The distinction between the Tenure Committee document and the oral and written criticisms was that the Tenure Committee had, in fact, presented substantive proposals while neither of the other two did anything except to wring their collective hands at the failure of the Tenure Committee statement to agree with the administrative views and perceived privileges.

While such responses are not uncommon when difficult issues are being formulated or resolved, it is noticeable that neither of the critical communications was able to present a single substantive contribution, and both cited current practice or the Regental 1935/54 statements as remaining the “ultimate authority on the meaning of tenure” despite the fact that neither current practice nor the Regental Statements offer anything beyond the standard generalities.

What one concludes from all of this is that it is no easy matter—beyond the usual exhortation of transcendental qualities—to attempt, let alone to achieve, the codification of non-maximal/non-minimal standards whereby to judge the performance of complex tasks by individuals. My conclusion to all of this is that the faculty should not be in a hurry to rush to codification on this issue but should, rather, continue its efforts thoughtfully and deliberately—regardless of non-substantive criticisms—until an understanding of the substantive issues and their consequences is reached by all parties. In this light, the present tendency to rush to judgment is ill-advised.