Dan Dundon: An insider's view of tenure at Florida universities

Few hot-button topics are hotter among university faculty than whether tenure is essential to academic freedom and quality teaching. Tenure reform sometimes is the third-rail of academia in the same way Social Security is the third rail of national politics. A university president who suggests tenure reform can expect to face a vote of no confidence from outraged faculty.

About 5,500 of the nearly 13,000 full-time faculty at Florida’s 11 public universities are tenured. Include those working toward tenure and the number increases to more than 7,600, according to university system figures. At the University of North Florida, about 360 faculty are tenured or in tenure-track positions.

Tenure means different things to different people. For a faculty member it means protection against arbitrary administrative decisions to fire an individual. To many outside academia, it’s viewed as a guarantee of lifetime employment even for poorly performing faculty members.

As someone who worked at the University of North Florida for 18 years, I believe the truth is probably in between.

Before retiring recently, I worked in a variety of positions in the area of public relations. I had the privilege to work with some outstanding faculty members who enable UNF to offer one of the best college educations in the Southeast. These faculty members not only were good teachers but also participated in exciting cutting-edge research. They inspired their students in the classroom, in the laboratory and in the field. It was an honor to help tell their story to the community.

But that’s not the entire story at UNF or any other tenure-granting institution. There were some faculty members who clearly had lost their edge. Their lectures were stale, their students were bored and their excitement for teaching had long ago vanished. Years without pay increases or being the victims of salary compression undoubtedly contributed to their classroom indifference. However, I believe the safeguards of tenure also played a role. Tenure defenders will point to periodic evaluations by colleagues to help underperforming tenured faculty members. But how much of an incentive do tenured professors have to improve if they know their jobs are safe barring egregious conduct such as breaking the law?

Even those who break the law are not easily terminated. I witnessed one case in which a convicted faculty member tied university lawyers in knots with legal proceedings that lasted for months. The university eventually prevailed but only after spending thousands in legal fees.

The pitfalls of tenure go far beyond classroom performance. Getting tenure is an extremely difficult and nerve-wracking experience because so much rides on the decision. Faculty on tenure tracks who fail to achieve that status, generally within six years, are frequently forced to leave the university and may find it difficult to land a similar job. The pressure on these faculty members is enormous and this in turn can affect classroom performance. Faculty seeking tenure not only must be good in the classroom but also must excel in research and service. If one of these other elements is missing, it’s not uncommon for a faculty member to be denied tenure regardless of teaching abilities.

I can recall one case in which students adored a particular faculty member who excelled in the classroom but was found lacking in research, which frequently means publication in a professional academic journal. Her students engaged in mass letter writing and conducted campus demonstrations in the effort to keep their beloved assistant professor. It was to no avail.

And then there is the politics of tenure. A tenure review committee of faculty colleagues holds the fate of the tenure applicant in their hands. A faculty member who might have an unpopular political viewpoint or disagrees with a colleague could find the road to tenure much more difficult. It’s an ironic twist to a concept that at its heart is designed to protect a faculty member’s freedom of expression.

Can a university operate without tenure? Florida Gulf Coast University is the only Florida state university without tenure. It opened in 1991 with a contract system that has not been without controversy. After a series of modifications, faculty members now have three-year rolling contracts with clear steps that can be taken if they’re not meeting performance standards. If after two years they fail to improve their performance sufficiently, they are given a terminal contract. Dr. Ron Tull, provost and vice president for academic affairs at FGCU says on average about two faculty members per year are not reappointed.

Tull also takes issue with the contention that recruitment and retention at FGCU are hurt by the lack of tenure. Tull, who himself earned tenure at two other universities, says junior faculty members actually have more protection at FGCU especially from the “faculty-on-faculty abuse” he has witnessed at other universities in his career. Retention is also very high with about 98 percent of faculty returning each year, he says.

The provost stresses he is not a “missionary” extolling the FGCU system for other universities nor does he take a position whether tenure should be abolished statewide. Each institution is different, he maintains. He does, however, strongly deny that the lack of tenure has hurt FGCU faculty or diminished the quality of instruction.

It should be noted that tenure generally does not apply to part-time, adjunct instructors or visiting faculty. At UNF, for example, about 140 full-time faculty are in non-tenure track positions. This creates two levels of faculty which some have referred to as a caste system. It also doesn’t apply to other types of employees. As an A&P (Administrative and Professional) employee I had a one-year contract, which could be non-renewed for any reason. Nor was I covered by many of the provisions governing unionized faculty at UNF. In some cases union protections appear to mimic tenure protections arguable making the later redundant.

Even if tenure were a perfect system, eliminating it still would benefit Florida universities by removing the perception that tenured faculty are enjoying protections not available to most other workers and are allowed to keep their jobs even when not performing them well.

How many poorly performing faculty are there at UNF? I don’t know but I suspect the number is very small. Nevertheless, with tuition and student debt increasing and state aid and Bright Futures scholarships generally decreasing, even one bad faculty member is one too many. Students deserve the best we can offer.

Dan Dundon is a writer and editor who worked for a number of Midwest newspapers before relocating to Jacksonville where he worked at the University of North Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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One comment

  • Ed Comet

    March 25, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Article would be more impressive if the main quoted figure from FGCU had his name spelt correctly. Retention figures are problematic, they depend on which groups are considered faculty. FGCU has been conducting searches for between 30 and 50 faculty members each year for the past 5 years. Some new/some replacement positions. University has about 460 FT in-unit (non-administrative) faculty.

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