Faculty Forum: Is Georgia's Attack on Tenure a Portent of Things to Come?

By Matthew Boedy

The AAUP has long held that post-tenure review is an attack on tenure when it can end in the termination of a faculty appointment without affording the affected professor the protections of academic due process. Now, post-tenure review has been weaponized in a new way. Georgia is the epicenter of this change.

Two elements of the policy changes approved in October 2021 by Georgia’s board of regents have eviscerated tenure. First, faculty no longer have the right to a hearing before a body of faculty peers prior to termination. Second, annual evaluations have become a possible route to termination.

The AAUP censured the University System of Georgia last March because the system removed the post-tenure review policy from its policy on “dismissal for cause.” The system implicitly added a new cause for dismissal—failing to complete an improvement plan after an unsuccessful post-tenure review—while removing the right to a hearing for that new cause. In short, the system gutted basic rights of academic due process. This is exactly what the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure feared would happen when it stated in its 1999 report Post-tenure Review: An AAUP Response, “The most objectionable feature of many systems of post-tenure review is that they ease the prevailing standards for dismissal and diminish the efficacy of those procedures” designed to protect academic freedom.

The AAUP’s report on the University System of Georgia noted that the system’s erasure of a right to a hearing is unique. For now. But the trends are clear. In 2000, 46 percent of institutions had a post-tenure review policy. By 2022, that number was up to 58.2 percent. And public colleges and universities, in particular, seem to be pushing post-tenure review. In 2022, more than two-thirds of public institutions reported having a system of post-tenure review, compared with about half of private institutions. The 2022 AAUP Survey of Tenure Practices noted that “this difference may be due to state legislative requirements for post-tenure review or a perceived need by public institutions to conduct such a review in the face of legislative hostility toward tenure.” Either way, this increase is a bad portent for faculty.

Even though, according to the Georgia system, faculty members statewide successfully passed their post-tenure review at a rate of nearly 95 percent in the five years prior to the policy change, administrators believed they needed better ways to identify the few underperforming professors. Hence the changes to annual evaluations. The board of regents mandated that faculty members receiving an unsatisfactory score on annual evaluations in teaching, research, or service in two consecutive years be forced into a “corrective” post-tenure review and improvement plan. In fact, earning an unsatisfactory score in any single year gets a faculty member a remediation plan.

And the use of the term corrective shows how post-tenure review has morphed into the very procedure the AAUP feared. It is being used to punish faculty, not to help them improve, and to weaken tenure, not to protect it. And the burden of proof has shifted. As the AAUP wrote in that 1999 report, “If the standard of dismissal is shifted from ‘incompetence’ to ‘unsatisfactory performance,’ as in some current proposals, then tenured faculty must recurrently ‘satisfy’ administrative officers rather than the basic standards of their profession.”

In the end, attacks on tenure are coming from within the house, from within higher education, as well as from without. And Georgia’s new post-tenure review policy diminishes the protections of tenure and so also unambiguously diminishes academic freedom.

What then is the future for faculty in Georgia and other states where such policies may take hold? To avoid further erosion of tenure, there must be more engagement at the state and system levels. AAUP censure has brought much-needed attention to post-tenure review policies and the ways Georgia’s system has sought to gut tenure. We at the grassroots level must follow this lead and do our part. Engaging directly with policy makers may mean proposing reforms, but it can also mean promoting AAUP ideals. We must be out in front, not merely reacting to changes after they have been proposed. 

Matthew Boedy is associate professor of English at the University of North Georgia and president of the Georgia AAUP conference. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to [email protected] for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not nec­essarily represent the policies of the AAUP.