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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, February 19, 2018

Denver Adopts A Kinder, Gentler Post-Tenure Review Policy: Development, Not Punishment

DenverFollowing up on my previous posts on the lawsuit by female law profs against the University of Denver Law School (links below):  Chronicle of Higher Education Special Report, A More Upbeat Approach to Post-Tenure Review:

The University of Denver is instituting a program focused not on punitive measures but on helping professors develop their skills.

Most Professors Hate Post-Tenure Review. A Better Approach Might Look Like This.

Skill development and guidance from colleagues take precedence at the University of Denver.

"Once you’ve got tenure you can antagonize people or bring them in. You can get the most out of them rather than force them to fit a cookie-cutter mold." ...

"Faculty development is not a punishment. The final goal was to make people understand that they couldn’t get tenure and just rest."

The Evolution of a Faculty-Focused Approach

At the University of Denver, faculty members overcame anger and distrust to hammer out a novel set of post-tenure policies.

[T]here were numerous faculty members who were pushing for post-tenure review in what I viewed as a punitive fashion. Some of them were angry at colleagues that they didn’t perceive as being productive and wanted a way to get rid of them. I thought it was fairly draconian, but it started a conversation.

When I became senate president, the board joined in along the same lines. So I was getting the message from the very top and from fellow faculty. When I talked to the provost, he wanted to help faculty members become more productive, rather than just weed out deadwood. From the very start, there was a philosophy of how can we use this to improve faculty performance and honor the faculty life cycle? ...

[T]he language was transformed from post-tenure review to faculty development. ...

Some faculty were adamant that what we have is a wimpy policy. Another concern is completely the opposite — that anytime you give a tool to administrators, they can abuse it. I do think that could happen, I just don’t think it’s likely. After working with the board members, I would call them enlightened. Some faculty members think, who are they to tell me what I’m supposed to do? I definitely understand that thinking when it comes to your academic discipline, but as a university evolves and careers evolve there needs to be a way to guide people back to the path if they’ve strayed too far.

Peer-to-Peer Guidance:

At key junctions in their careers, professors at the University of Denver are urged to seek advice from more-experienced colleagues. ...

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The antagonism toward post-tenure review by the large majority of law faculty is professionally embarrassing. Why should anyone think they can't be assessed for continuing development and productivity simply because they passed an initial promotion threshold based on a few reasonably interesting articles and the conclusion by law professors who may themselves be no more than adequate educators that the person being granted tenure is a competent to good teacher based on a subjective and amorphous set of standards? This doesn't even begin to take into account whether the individual is fulfilling the "service" elements of the three-part obligation of the law professor. The job is so wonderful that we have the responsibility to attain a lifetime of continued high level productivity, not a three or four year probationary period that once completed means we are not really subject to much oversight and certainly not the continuing responsibility to perform at significant levels. And who are we kidding? Honesty demands we admit that there are many law faculty members who abuse any serious concept of productivity and growth in the quality of performance and that they do so without consequence other than colleagues (perhaps) knowing that they are not fulfilling their responsibilities. The argument that there should not be reasonable assessment of professional productivity makes no sense other than as a coverup for not having to be answerable to anyone after receiving tenure. Form, standards and content are different matters.

One of the problems with post-tenure productivity and growth assessments in the academic culture we have now created, however, is that of excessive political correctness in terms of what can safely be said in ones teaching and scholarship. Another involves the integrity of the people performing the assessment. A third is that on most faculties relationships, alliances and friendships are created that make it difficult to have any objective assessment without creating enemies. A fourth is that the legal job market has become so tight that there is no real place for a non-productive faculty member to go if the person is removed. This creates a "there but for the grace of..." situation in which post-tenure reviews where someone creates a pattern of consistent non-productivity and is cut loose, the individual could be receiving the equivalent of an "academic death sentence". So we avoid putting ourselves in that position and make it almost impossible to have serious productivity standards and assessments because of the potential consequences.

Posted by: David | Feb 19, 2018 7:27:56 AM