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UA board adopts policy on faculty tenure, firing

by Jaime Adame | March 30, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

MONTICELLO -- A revised policy with an expanded listing of ways tenured faculty members can lose their jobs was approved Thursday by the governing board for the University of Arkansas System.

Some professors had said the update threatens academic tenure with language that can be too broadly applied, while UA System officials described the new examples as providing needed clarity.

"Despite some public comments to the contrary, nothing in the proposed changes undermine academic freedom or the value that the University of Arkansas System places on tenure," said Michael Moore, the UA System's vice president for academic affairs.

Tenure is defined by the UA System as the right of continuous appointment. Professors gain tenure based on their job performance over several years but still undergo annual reviews.

Academic groups like the American Association of University Professors stress the importance of tenure.

[DOCUMENT: Read the updated tenure policy]

"When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech or publications research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge," according to a statement from the organization.

The unanimous vote by the 10-person board of trustees at a meeting in Monticello came despite requests by faculty to delay taking action.

This past fall, faculty members voiced concerns about their lack of involvement in the policy. A draft revision from the UA System and distributed to campuses in September had been written without an effort to seek input from faculty.

UA System officials invited faculty members to attend two meetings in January to discuss the revisions.

Leanne Lefler, an associate professor of nursing and academic senate president at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told trustees that since January she worked with UA System officials on the policy update.

While "there's been a lot of good changes," she said UAMS faculty "cannot support this policy."

Lefler said a concern among faculty members is that the policy is written to make it easy for them to lose their jobs. She asked that UA System officials spend more time working with faculty "who know the issues with this policy, not with a team of people who don't know the issues."

The old policy, last updated in 2001, listed four examples of grounds for dismissal: "incompetence, neglect of duty, intellectual dishonesty, and moral turpitude."

The revised policy lists 12 examples of grounds for dismissal, including a "pattern of conduct that is detrimental to the productive and efficient operation of the instructional or work environment."

Josh Silverstein, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock law professor, told trustees Thursday that this portion of the policy uses "exceptionally broad language" that "can be used to punish people with whom you disagree."

Carol Strong, a University of Arkansas at Monticello associate professor of political science and chairman of the UAM faculty assembly, said faculty members had wanted to ask the board to delay a vote, but she recognized that a vote was likely.

"There is still concern about what is actually going to happen when these policies are put into place," Strong said.

She said she wanted the board and others to ensure that the policy not applied "for political purposes."

"I don't think anyone here is about trying to keep faculty who are not actually doing their job," Strong said.

UA System President Donald Bobbitt recommended approval of the revision, describing the update as part of a larger project to ensure policies "are appropriate for the rapidly-changing landscape" of higher education.

JoAnn Maxey, general counsel for the UA System, said the policy update "does not change the basic definition of cause," referring to a cause for dismissal.

"What has changed are the examples. We have replaced very general terms," Maxey said.

Another example of a cause for dismissal involves annual reviews of tenured faculty. The policy states that, effective July 1, 2019, an "overall unsatisfactory performance rating" from an annual job performance review will place a faculty member on a remediation plan. Two years in a row of "unsatisfactory performance" may lead to a 12-month notice of dismissal, the policy states.

Maxey said that up to now, "we have not moved forward for any dismissal proceedings for unsatisfactory performance of tenured faculty." She added, however, that "we see files where you would wonder why a faculty member is still there when you look at his or her overall performance over the course of time."

Trustees who voiced support for the policy said it took longer for faculty members to be dismissed under the old policy, and some also noted that faculty members have the right to appeal such a dismissal decision.

Cliff Gibson, an attorney from Monticello, said he did not see any "drastic" change with the policy update.

Gibson said that if there was a "glitch" in the policy, "this board retains the power to change this puppy anytime we want to."

Among the eight faculty members who addressed the board, two spoke in favor of the policy update: John DiPippa, interim law dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Christopher Westfall, interim dean for the UAMS College of Medicine.

"Anything can be abused," DiPippa said. "However, listing these specific examples which are functional in nature provides faculty with more guidance as to the behavior that's expected and mitigates against that abuse."

After the vote, Lefler said she was discouraged and surprised at the outcome.

Silverstein said he was disappointed, "especially that the vote was unanimous" and that there was no delay in the vote.

"Based on a long history in higher education, the language that they adopted is far more likely to be abused than the language that is currently in the rule," Silverstein said.

A Section on 03/30/2018

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