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Amid calls for tenure reform, UT dean shares how he helped toughen faculty reviews

Reforming faculty tenure remains a major plank in many plans for the future of Texas’ public universities, from the “seven breakthrough solutions” backed, until recently, by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, to the University of Texas System’s new framework for reform, introduced in August by Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

It’s a hot-button issue outside the UT System too — in San Antonio, trustees are considering revamping the tenure process for Alamo Colleges faculty.

Last week the Austin American-Statesman examined review records for tenured UT-Austin faculty, finding that while some professors had been given unsatisfactory reviews, not one had been fired since the early ’90s.

But in interviews with the Texas Independent, UT-Austin officials argued that firings aren’t the right way to measure the post-tenure review system’s success.

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/RandyDiehl-150x150.jpgUT-Austin College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl

Randy Diehl, dean of the UT-Austin College of Liberal Arts — and the author of a point-by-point response to the “Seven Solutions” in July, which picked apart the TPPF reform proposals point-by-point — told the Independent that beefing up the post-tenure review process for his faculty has been a major priority over the last few years.

They may not be firing faculty at a moment’s notice, but by handing out strict reform plans to faculty whose performance doesn’t make the grade, Diehl said the college has encouraged professors to either step up their game or get out. While none of the professors the Statesman named had been fired, Diehl said, it’s no coincidence that many of them retired or left the university after poor reviews.

There are 421 tenured faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts, each up for review every six years. In a given year, Diehl said, seven or eight of them are handed negative reviews and go before a faculty committee he’s appointed, which develops a remediation plan to get the teachers back on track. It usually entails either more research work — and proving that they’ve been applying for grants, publishing papers or submitting them — or taking on more teaching duties.

In the past few years, he said, about half of those who go before the committee decide to leave UT rather than do the extra work.

It’s not the only way post-tenure review is handled at public universities, or even at other colleges at UT, nor is it necessarily the best answer for everyone, Diehl said. But a UT-Austin spokesman said Diehl’s is a good case study in how the university is toughening its standards, even while others criticize them as overpaid, out of touch or simply coasting by.

“The idea that our senior leadership don’t care about productivity couldn’t be further from the truth,” Diehl said.

In a conversation with the Independent, Diehl explained how he revamped the post-tenure review process, and why he still places a premium on faculty who choose to take on extra research, rather than teach extra classes.

TX Indy: Could you explain just what changes you’ve made to the faculty review process since you’ve taken over?

Randy Diehl: Post-tenure review was first implemented back in the ’90s when I was a department chair in the psychology department. At the time, there was a lot of confusion about what it was meant to accomplish. I had several senior faculty members who were not very productive who had been productive earlier in their career.

I became dean in June 2007, and I decided what we needed to do in the College of Liberal Arts is not to be a conduit to funnel post-tenure reports to the provost, but to have a process for determining where there were deficiencies in a faculty member’s record.

I appointed a committee — these were senior faculty, I deliberately chose people who were very productive and have a reputation for having high standards. In a given year, we’d have around 100 cases. I read every one of the reports.

Every report that includes a negative evaluation in any of three areas — teaching, research and service — that will automatically be brought to the committee. I will also forward any report that is positive, that I consider to be problematic in any way.

I let the committee know I was interested in increasing the rigor of the process. I felt heretofore we hadn’t been sufficiently rigorous. One of the problems with the post-tenure review in the past is that people would come up with remediation plans, and that would be that.

The new wrinkle is we’ll come back the next year and evaluate how well the remediation plan is working.

TX Indy: And what do you do if you come back and decide the plan isn’t working, after all?

RD: If a faculty member is unwilling to accept a remediation plan, is unwilling to do what is necessary to show that he or she is doing what is required of a tenured faculty member, I am not at all unwilling to consider termination — that’s something that’s been done infrequently if at all. Post-tenure review is meant to be a constructive process.

I would meet with the faculty member in question. I’d put in writing where the faculty member had demonstrated insufficient action or attention to the plan. We have a grievance process, and also a process for people who feel their academic freedom is being violated.

I’m not saying the first consequence would be termination, but I have no doubt at all that if remediation were simply being obstructed by the faculty member, the principle of academic freedom is not there to prevent faculty from doing their jobs.

TX Indy: But you’re saying that the process is also designed to help some faculty exit gracefully when that’s the best option for the university.

RD: An issue I had frankly with the Austin American-Statesman article was that it noted that this or that faculty member had received a negative post-tenure review, and in passing, almost as an afterthought, mentioned they had left.

There was a direct connection between the negative post-tenure review and the fact that they’re no longer with the university. Basically, the remediation plans are serious enough that retirement might look like an attractive option compared to having to fulfill the requirements of the remediation plan.

TX Indy: When you’re giving faculty members this choice between more teaching and more research, do you or the college have a preference as to which they pick?

RD: I definitely prefer that faculty member be seriously engaged in research, be an excellent teacher and be involved in the kind of service activities in the department or the community or the profession that we expect.

Being a Tier One research university means that we do prefer the faculty members to continue their research activity — but if they have opted out of the research track, they can now take on additional teaching duties instead. But that’s not our first choice.

TX Indy: Now that tenure reform is being looked at across the state, and the UT System’s framework for reform includes taking another look at post-tenure review, do you see your changes as a lesson to other colleges?

RD: We started doing this three years ago — this was before the current political issues had arisen. This entirely flowed from my own ideas about what we need to do to enhance productivity, and entirely consistent with what the provost and the president were advocating.

It would be presumptuous to say that our approach necessarily is the right approach — it would be presumptuous to say deans elsewhere aren’t doing equally rigorous forms of evaluation. I would recommend this kind of approach, or an equally stringent approach, to any other dean — but I don’t want to suggest that other deans aren’t doing very well.

This story has been corrected with a more accurate count of tenured faculty members at the UT-Austin College of Liberal Arts.

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