Last month, the University published its first draft of a new document that, if passed, would have implemented changes to the procedures for faculty appointment, evaluation, promotion and tenure. This would be the first update since 2014, with the public commenting period ending just last week.
The goal of the document was to make the policy more transparent and “inclusive” as part of the University’s “academic transformation,” according to Melissa Latimer, associate provost for faculty development, and Tracy Morris, associate provost for academic personnel.
“There’s a piece within [academic transformation] which is faculty recognition and rewards. And that committee was charged with updating the guidelines that currently exist for appointment, annual evaluation, promotion and tenure,” Latimer said.
“So we were asked to look at that document and make it more inclusive and make sure that it's recognizing and rewarding all the different types of work that our faculty are engaged in.”
Latimer said there is a gap between what faculty are asked to do and what they are actually doing — things that improve both recruitment and retention and are crucial to maintaining an R1 status for the University that are not recognized.
When the document was first released, however, it was criticized by some, saying that by strengthening certain parts of the document, tenure as a whole was weakened.
Associate Professor Scott Crichlow, a member of the faculty senate, said in an interview with The Daily Athenaeum that the document was at first controversial within the Eberly College.
One of the bigger concerns was with language surrounding the non-continuation policy for tenure.
The original draft of the document explained that “unsatisfactory” ratings could be given in cases where tenured faculty are not meeting their college’s minimal standards for performance, have not demonstrated improvement after a period of performance decline and feedback or have neglected their job.
The document stated that, after one unsatisfactory rating in any area at any level of the annual review process, the faculty member would receive feedback and must develop an improvement plan within 30 days. If the member received a second unsatisfactory rating, again at any level in any area, “that level of review must recommend non-continuation.”
“I think the issue that a lot of the faculty are concerned about is the extremely short time window about that,” Crichlow said. “That if something just happens in that person’s life situation, there’s going to be very, very little kind of wiggle room.”
This language was a concern in one of 50 comments made on the document throughout the commentary period. The document has since been edited to use the word “may” instead of “must.”
Latimer and Morris said that, moving forward, the focus should be on making what constitutes an unsatisfactory rating more transparent and providing feedback and a plan to give faculty the opportunity to improve.
“That's really what we want. We want everybody to do well and improve, but if people were not improving, then what would they do,” Morris said. “There's language in the current document, and then in the proposed document, it just makes that much more clear.”
According to Morris, the document outlines more clearly what having an “unsatisfactory” rating means, creating more safeguards for faculty losing tenure by knowing where they need to improve.
School administrators said this transparency could make having a job at the University seem more attractive.
According to the University, already less than 1% of faculty lose tenure.
“It’s not easier, it’s just transparent. It’s more clear,” Latimer said.
Crichlow said faculty were also concerned that the document could lead to violations of academic freedom.
The original document said that, while performing service activities such as teaching and research, faculty must engage in behaviors consistent with the University Code of Conduct and Values.
Crichlow said this language was vague and feared it could be used in a way that could limit academic freedom by terminating employees whose research is controversial or not necessarily “representative” of the University.
“Say if what you work on, the administration doesn’t like, then you could get the (unsatisfactory) for that. Then across two years or two out of three years, they could fire you for that. Even if you are working on your research that you’ve been working on for 15 years. If a new president or provost doesn’t like it, that could play out like that,” Crichlow said.
For example, early this year in Florida, three professors were barred from talking about voting rights in front of the state legislature as expert witnesses by their university’s administration.
Latimer and Morris said this language was removed, as it was unnecessary to the overall purpose of the document and could be misconstrued.
“That wasn’t the intention. If it could be misused in that way, we don’t want it in there, so we took it out,” Latimer said.
Since the original document was released, there have been 26 town halls, and a faculty-senate meeting last week where attendees were able to express concerns, many of which were similar to those commented on the document.
All 50 comments that have been submitted by University faculty thus far have since been reviewed and either responded to with edits or addressed on the original document.
Additional changes to the original policy include revoking the ability of assistant professors to receive tenure by starting the process at the level of associate professor, which Latimer and Morris said is congruent with policies at similar universities. Assistant professors who currently hold tenure would be able to keep their status.
The new document proposes that librarians are given extended contracts and are placed on an external review process, the same as most other faculty at the University. This means librarians may now be reviewed by librarians from outside their unit or the University.
The annual review process, in general, was reinforced, and the formative and summative evaluations are now required, meaning faculty will have to be given feedback on their performance and what they should change to reach their next goal.
Faculty will also be able to earn credit toward their overall performance for discovery and application work performed outside of the classroom, such as research or pro bono work.
“We want to encourage people to keep doing this work. It is crucial to our state,” Morris said.
The Faculty Senate will discuss the final version of the document on Dec. 5 and vote on Jan. 9.
If passed, the document will go to President E. Gordon Gee for his approval and be posted to the faculty website.