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Education

Scott's questions put university tenure under scrutiny

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 12:19 AM
TAMPA -

J. Lynn McBrien worked for five years to prove she was worthy of a position as professor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. Tenure was her reward.

Now, Gov. Rick Scott is raising questions about tenure, stoking fears among faculty that they'll lose the freedom and independence that comes with the hard-won honor.

The state Legislature this year eliminated tenure protections for public school teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade, and with Scott praising proposed university reforms in Texas, Florida university faculty fear they're next.

"I would hope they would do their homework," said Paul Terry, an associate professor at USF Polytechnic, and president of the USF System faculty union.

"Everyone thinks tenure guarantees lifetime employment. It doesn't. Even if you're tenured, if you don't perform, you can lose your job."

Scott hasn't proposed anything specific, though he's made it clear he wants to focus on the university system in the legislative session that starts in January.

He's been meeting with university presidents and distributing a Texas think tank report called the "Seven Solutions."

The report proposes several changes that could change how professors are paid and awarded tenure, emphasizing large classes and evaluations from students, whom it calls customers.

In his conversations around the state, Scott has honed in on the tenure question.

 

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About 44 percent of the 11,000 instructional faculty members at Florida's 11 public universities have tenure. At USF in Tampa, it's about 52 percent. If you count those working toward tenure, the statewide number rises to more than 70 percent.

"What's the purpose" of tenure, Scott asked in a recent meeting with The Tampa Tribune's editorial page writers. "If there's a logical purpose, we ought to have it. If not, we shouldn't do it."

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan raised the tenure issue briefly at Board of Governors meeting in Miami two weeks ago.

"How do we make sure people are still hitting that mark" after they receive tenure, he asked.

Professor Terry said tenured professors are evaluated every year, and every seven years they get what's called a "sustained performance evaluation," involving other faculty and administrators.

If they're found deficient, they're subject to a performance improvement plan.

Tenure and tenure review procedures can vary by university and by campus, but they're generally the same from place to place.

Professors who are failing at their jobs can be fired, said Ed Mitchell, executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, though he conceded it doesn't happen very often.

"That's because people are doing their jobs. I don't see faculty who are not doing their jobs," Mitchell said.

They key guarantee of tenure is that a professor can't be fired without cause. That ensures freedom to speak openly about controversial issues, said Madelyn Isaacs, former president of the faculty union at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

"People do research in areas that are extremely controversial," she said. A comparative-religion professor could "suddenly be caught in a crossfire between prominent people with opposing views.

Genetic research is important in curing diseases, but if it involves embryonic stem cells, it can spark controversy.

"A practical idea can be quickly politicized," Isaacs said. "Somebody has to protect what we call knowledge and the diverse conversations around knowledge, or our society stops growing."

 

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The freedom to have those conversations isn't handed out lightly, said McBrien, of USF Sarasota-Manatee.

"We earn it" through the tenure process. "I don't think the public has a clue of how hard it is."

The way it works at USF, and most places, people who want to make a career of teaching and show potential get on a tenure track.

In their sixth year, they must present detailed documentation of their accomplishments in research, teaching and service to the community and the university.

McBrien, an assistant professor in the education college, supplied what she guessed was 50 pounds of material to her many reviewers in the USF faculty and administration.

They included papers published in recognized journals, grant submissions, conference presentations, materials from the classes she taught, and evidence of how she changed them from year to year based on student feedback.

"I had to get three external experts from my field from throughout the country to examine some of the material," McBrien said.

Had she failed to obtain tenure, she would have had to leave USF under what are known as "up or out," guidelines.

Much of her research has focused on refugee students in the United States and how to help them make it in U.S. public schools. She has worked overseas in Ghana and Uganda.

She wouldn't want to give up a piece of either her teaching or research.

"It's unbelievable how much my students learn from what I'm doing," she said.

Professors like McBrien are everywhere in the Florida state universities, said Isaacs, of Florida Gulf Coast.

Her question to Scott is, "What's broken and why do you feel you need to fix it?"

 

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McBrien has seen first-hand a university that tried to evaluate professors differently.

Florida's newest university, Florida Gulf Coast opened 14 years ago with a plan unlike any in the state. Instead of tenure, faculty would have two- to five-year contracts. They could be fired at the end of the contract period even if they met performance standards.

A handful of professors, such as Isaacs, came from USF with tenure and were allowed to keep it.

The problems started almost right away.

Former Florida Gulf Coast professor Victoria Jean Dimidjian described the fallout in a 2002 article for The NEA Higher Education Journal.

Amid growing tension on campus, many departures and fears of more, the United Faculty of Florida surveyed the full-time faculty in 1999, Dimidjian wrote. Nearly half rated their job security as unsatisfactory.

Florida Gulf Coast administration and faculty representatives followed with another survey in 2001. More than half of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with their working conditions, job security and resources for scholarship.

Forty percent said they were considering leaving Florida Gulf Coast.

Still avoiding the tenure system, the university switched seven years ago to what it calls a continuing contract system. This sets up three-year contracts with clear steps faculty members can take in their second year if they're not meeting performance standards.

"There are due-process protections," said Isaacs. "So as long as you perform according to our standards, you're not going to get kicked out."

The standards are set by the faculty, with the consent of the administration.

In a way, the continuous contract system provides the safety of tenure without making faculty members go through the rigorous tenure process.

It has helped attract faculty who wouldn't have come to Florida Gulf Coast before. And many of these faculty members ended up staying, said Isaacs.

That means "we have to hire very carefully and very well."

 

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This system has evolved at Florida Gulf Coast, but to impose it on the rest of the universities could be disastrous, Isaacs said.

"Some people are already circulating their resumes."

USF sophomore Kaleena Burns has some doubts about big changes in how professors are graded.

She's had one or two professors who didn't seem to care, she said.

But the rest have been "really good," especially in the classes focused on her major, business marketing. "They know what they're talking about."

She likes the idea of students having a bigger role in their evaluations, as suggested in the Texas plan, but said this should be handled carefully.

"Some of us aren't mature enough" to understand the importance of such an evaluation, she said. "You catch one of us on a bad day and we might say anything."

Javas Gupta, a bioscience major, agreed student ratings should be considered, but primarily when they show a clear pattern one way or the other.

He'd be against anything that would make a professor start playing it safe, he said.

"I want them to be free to say what they really think."


lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834 Twitter: @TBO_USFetc

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