Tenure, The Presidential Veto and Abuse of Power

Guest Blogger Douglas Boyd is a Professor in the Department of Cancer Biology at the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston.

The 1966 “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities” (adopted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) (http://www.aaup.org/report/), the Association of Governing Boards of Universities (AGBU), the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU)) stipulates unequivocally that “faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility; this area includes appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint,…” Importantly, many universities including ours (University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center), as members of these organizations, should follow these espoused principles. That said, a growing concern is that administrations at US academic institutions, including ours, are increasingly rendering tenure decisions contrary to the recommendations made by the faculty body responsible for evaluation of applications.

A presidential reversal of a recommendation made by the aforementioned faculty body has recently been in the academic spotlight with the AAUP investigating the case of an Assistant Professor denied tenure by the President at Northeastern Illinois University despite a unanimous recommendation by their Promotions and Tenure committee (PTC). In their report (Academe Dec 2013) the AAUP sided with the Assistant Professor concluding that the “President’s stated reasons lack credibility as grounds of denying tenure.” The AAUP, following the 1966 Statement on Government, stated that the “final decision lodged in the governing board …should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances and for reasons communicated to the faculty.”

Our institution has a term tenure renewable every seven years. Nevertheless, like other academic institutions, the tenure renewal process involves evaluation of the faculty application by one’s peers (serving on our PTC). Their recommendation is forwarded to the President for his final decision. However, at our University of Texas institute there has been mounting concern that some faculty members have had their application overturned by the President despite a unanimous vote in favor by the PTC. Accordingly our “Faculty Senate PTC Issues” committee was asked to look into this issue. I chaired this committee; the findings herein and recommendations are from our committee and a motion was carried for their approval by the faculty senate. Nevertheless, any views expressed herein are solely those of the author’s.

Our committee identified five cases for which the President struck down a unanimous vote favoring renewal by the PTC over a eight year period. We evaluated the academic accomplishments of four of the rejected applicants comparing each with two of his/her peers (same rank, same discipline) concurrently approved for tenure renewal. Quantitative scales were used to evaluate (a) publications (b) funding (c) teaching (d) service/recognition (e) honors/awards and (f) letters of support. Space prohibits an extensive description of these measures or inclusion of the raw data herein. Nevertheless, for publications and teaching all four applicants were at least equivalent to one of their peers approved for tenure in the same cycle. Moreover, the applicants scored at least as well in four, or more, of the above measures again compared with one of their peers renewed for tenure in the same cycle. On this basis, our committee concluded that their denial of tenure renewal by the President was groundless.

No reasons for the President denial were stated to any of the applicants. This situation is even more egregious than the case at Northeastern Illinois University where at least reasons were provided to the applicant-albeit of little substance. An email from our Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs to the author stated:  “President or Provost comes to the PTC to discuss situations where ..disagreement, and ….reasons for the decisions are mentioned. However these reasons are not captured in writing, and the deliberations are not made available to the faculty member or their chair…”       Alas, this practice runs in flagrant disregard to the “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities” which our institution should adhere to. This document states that an administrative reversal of faculty judgment on faculty status should include “….reasons which should be stated in detail.”

The rejected faculty members submitted appeals for re-consideration – all were unsuccessful. This is not surprising. In its present construct, the appeals process at our University of Texas institution is closely aligned with the President’s office bringing into question its impartiality.

Several recommendations were made by our committee:

Recommendation 1: Faculty receiving a unanimous vote in favor of tenure renewal by the PTC should be automatically renewed with the President unable to veto the decision.

Recommendation 2: For faculty recommended by the PTC for tenure renewal but for whom the vote is not unanimous, a Presidential rejection should be contingent on demonstration of inferior metrics (compared with faculty approved in the corresponding cycle). Additionally, tangible reasons (including metrics) in writing should be provided to the rejected applicant.

Recommendation 3:  An appeals committee should be comprised exclusively of members from other academic institutions, appointed by the PTC and/or the faculty member. The recommendation for/against tenure renewal made by the Appeals committee would be final.

Subsequent to submission of our recommendations an email from the Senior VP For Academic Affairs, stated that “no changes to the promotion and term tenure process are being considered at this time.” So much for shared governance a hot topic across US universities including ours.

I conclude with some final thoughts. For faculty receiving a unanimous vote in favor of renewal by their PTC the applicant should be confident of tenure renewal barring egregious actions such as criminal activity. What this ultimately boils down to is shared governance. Instead it seems that a semi-dictatorial system is in effect at our University of Texas institution where the decision for tenure renewal can amount to an arbitrary process decided by one person. The latter for sure must be a morale buster for faculty.

4 thoughts on “Tenure, The Presidential Veto and Abuse of Power

  1. Interesting read for me as I am not in the academic world. Has there been any rumblings of this type of treatment going on at Purdue (yet)? Knowing the modus operandi of former governor and current Purdue president Mitch Daniels, this type of high-handed personnel decision would seem to be right up his alley.

  2. At our institution, the president also has the right to overturn P&T decisions, but at least over the last ten to fifteen years, which is the period in which I have been most consistently aware of these issues, the president has used that power very sparingly–and always in the favor of candidates whose cases for promotion to full professor or for initial promotion and tenure had been contentious and after an appeals committee consisting of faculty and administrative representatives had recommended that course of action. So the recommendations that you are making should go a long way toward curbing what seems to be clearly an abuse of presidential power.

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