The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Tenure protections at American universities were a central demand of faculty in the early twentieth century. As the American Association of University Professors noted in its influential 1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure:
Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.
It remains the case that faculty off the tenure track are much more easily dismissed without good cause or procedural protections. When contingent faculty find themselves the subject of student complaints or speech controversies, the result is frequently termination.
One easy way to undermine the tenure system is to not hire professors on the tenure track in the first place, and in recent years a large percentage of instructors at American colleges and universities have been hired on a contingent basis. Some of those positions are entirely justifiable for educational reasons. Part-time instructors can fill short-term demand and can provide students with access to individuals with real-world experience in their subject matter. But many such hires are less justifiable, driven by a desire to keep labor costs low and undermine shared governance in academic affairs.
A more difficult path to undermining the tenure system is to weaken tenure protections even for those who have it. Numerous universities have taken steps in that direction with "post-tenure review" procedures that periodically reevaluate tenured faculty with the possibility of dismissing them. The board of regents for the University System of Georgia, which includes the University of Georgia and Georgia State University, is currently considering a significant revision to the existing tenure system that would give administrators powerful new tools to dismiss tenured faculty.
The proposal can be found here. It is discussed in detail in a new article at Inside Higher Ed. The AAUP has detailed its objections in a letter to the regents here, and the regents have made some modest changes in language to the original proposal in response.
The proposal would empower administrators unilaterally to dismiss faculty after a poor post-tenure review without normal procedural protections or peer review. As the AAUP notes, this is an "extraordinary" exception to traditional tenure protections and would shift substantial power over the continued employment of a professor from the faculty to the university administration.
Moreover, it creates an entirely new option for firing tenured faculty. Although the current procedures for removing faculty "for cause" would stay in place, they would be supplemented by another option of removing professors "other than for cause" in pursuance of future policies that the board might adopt and with none of the procedural protections that exist in cases of dismissal for cause. As the AAUP notes:
The doorway opened by the new language is a wide one: if any institution of higher education can dismiss any faculty members without affordance of due process for unspecified reasons—as long as those reasons are not among the listed grounds for dismissal—then the system of tenure and the academic freedom it is designated to protect are severely compromised, as are the appointment security and academic freedom of non-tenured faculty members.
If the Georgia system adopts these changes, it would not be surprising if others followed suit.