Detroit — In a move rarely seen in academia, Wayne State University is trying to fire multiple faculty members depicted as abusing their tenure by doing as little work as possible.
Hearings to revoke tenure start Wednesday for the first of five WSU medical school professors who allegedly are performing poorly in research, scholarship or teaching. Another five professors, including some outside the 996 faculty members in the medical school, also may face dismissal proceedings, university officials said.
Only two other times in WSU’s 149-year history has the university begun proceedings to take away a professor’s tenure, which is an indefinite appointment. In both cases, the faculty member prevailed.
But this is the first time the university is attempting to terminate several professors. They will lose their jobs if tenure is revoked.
The proceedings are part of a bigger effort to address other issues, including a budget deficit and accreditation warnings in Wayne State’s medical school, the nation’s third largest and a leading educator of Michigan’s physician population.
Already, the university announced in August that 37 medical school faculty could lose their positions through retirement or termination for underperforming in their academic assignments — which has led to the departure of two dozen faculty.
WSU President M. Roy Wilson told The Detroit News that the dismissal hearings are aimed at accountability for individuals and excellence for the university. The professors facing the hearings are “grossly underperforming” and “not doing anything,” he said, making it difficult to move the university toward its mission as a premier urban research institution.
“(They) are blatant examples of taking advantage of a tenure system, which is a privilege,” said Wilson, who took office in 2013. “I value tenure. It’s important for universities. I have always protected tenure. ... But when it’s abused so blatantly, it makes it very difficult for other people who are doing what they are supposed to do to come to work and do their jobs, because they see another person getting the same amount of money or more and not coming into work and not being accountable at all. You just can’t build a first-class university that way.”
Charles Parrish, president of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers at Wayne State, said he strongly discouraged Wilson from trying to remove tenure from professors, and suggested the move is a way to cut costs resulting from failure of past administrators. “No other university that I know of in American history has launched an attack on tenure in this way, announcing that they were going to go after (nearly) 40 faculty members,” Parrish said. “There have been attacks on tenure all over the country ... but not from inside the university.”
The road to lose tenure
The de-tenure proceedings involve each professor going before a seven-member panel, including a nonvoting judge or arbitrator, for a closed hearing. The panel makes a recommendation to Wilson. If the president recommends dismissal, then Wayne State’s Board of Governors or a committee appointed by the board will have another hearing. The board makes the final decision.
While the proceedings are scheduled for the first professor this week, hearings are set for two others in May and June. The hearings for the two other professors are not yet scheduled.
Parrish expects that all the faculty members will vigorously defend themselves, especially since they have not been provided with written evaluations or discussions about their performance over time. “I am not sure the university is going to get any of them,” he said.
Tenure is a fundamental value in academia, set up to protect a scholar’s freedom of speech and academic freedom. After a probationary period, educators are granted a post for an indefinite period. Once achieved, the educator cannot be terminated except for just cause.
In recent years, there have been threats to tenure across the nation, such as in Wisconsin, where the Legislature voted in 2015 to eliminate it from state law.
“The stripping of tenure is rather unheard of,” said Laura Markwardt, spokeswoman for the national American Association of University Professors, which does not keep a national record of how many professors have lost tenure.
At Wayne State, there are three reasons why a professor with tenure could face dismissal: moral turpitude, such as sexual assault of a colleague or misconduct with a student; violating generally accepted academic practices such as fraud in research; or failure to perform academic assignments competently, according to university statutes.
Wilson said all the professors are facing hearings because of failure to perform in their academic assignments, per the recommendation of medical school Dean Jack Sobel.
“Upon careful review of his recommendation, I am convinced that reasonable grounds exist for initiating dismissal proceedings for your failure to perform academic assignments competently, as set forth in University policy,” Wilson wrote in a letter to a professor that was obtained by The News.
‘Bar is not that high’
Matt Lockwood, WSU spokesman, declined to identify the faculty members, citing concerns about due process in upcoming hearings.
But Parrish confirmed that the five professors are four men and one woman who have served the university for an average of 30 years. Their assignments include posts in the departments of biochemistry and molecular biology, molecular medicine and genetics, obstetrics and gynecology, and pharmacology.
But a letter obtained by The News offers a glimpse into how the process unfolded for one of the professors. In it, Detroit attorney Gordon Gregory expressed outrage after meeting last May with the professor and Sobel.
During the meeting, Sobel highlighted many contributions the professor made in his career, but then noted the lack of grants and publications in recent years, according to the letter. The professor protested that he had been moved to a lab with inadequate equipment to perform significant research, and the administration was aware of the situation.
Still, medical school officials continued to insist the professor was unproductive, according to the letter.
“To my dismay, I witnessed the summary destruction of a distinguished academic career spanning 26 years at WSU,” Gregory wrote in an email to Louis Lessem, WSU’s vice president and general counsel. “It took only ten minutes for (an associate medical school dean) to announce that (the professor) could resign or face dismissal. He is not prepared to retire or resign. ... He was never given expectations. No one knows where productivity begins and ends.”
Wilson said he feels strongly about holding people accountable.
“The bar is not that high,” he said. “We are asking people to do what they are being paid to do.”
While rare, revoking tenure has been attempted at other institutions. At the University of Michigan, officials tried to oust multiple professors for refusing to give testimony against suspected Communists during the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, according to William Schultz, chair of the UM Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. UM fired two professors — one of whom had tenure — and suspended another, who was later reinstated.
Since then, UM has instituted bylaws for faculty tenure protection. “Stripping tenure is indeed rare at University of Michigan,” Schultz said.
Unlike the situation at UM in the 1950s, regarded as an attack on intellectual freedom, failure to perform has been the underpinning every time Wayne State initiated a proceeding to take away a professor’s tenure.
The first time Wayne State began proceedings was in the early 1990s under former President David Adamany, officials said. The professor was in the engineering department and allegedly did little, if any, research. A seven-member de-tenuring committee was split on whether to take away his tenure, officials said. So the professor stayed and retired a few years later.
The second time the university initiated a de-tenuring hearing was in 2015 for a medical school faculty member. But that effort failed, too.
The five professors now targeted were identified last year when WSU generated a list of 60 to 80 unproductive medical school faculty, university officials said. The list was prompted by concerns that the Board of Governors had heard for years about the medical school, which is a significant part of the university, making up 43 percent of WSU’s $1.2 billion operating budget.
Wilson, an ophthalmologist with numerous previous leadership positions in medical school administration, hinted at the problems with Wayne State’s medical school faculty three years ago when the former dean, Dr. Robert Mentzer, filed a lawsuit that alleged officials defamed him by trying to force him out.
At the time, WSU officials said Mentzer had accepted a position with a university in California, spent most of his time there and his professional behavior amount to “theft.”
“The days of getting a full-time paycheck and not doing your work ... are long gone,” Wilson said in May 2014.
It’s unclear how long the hearings will take but Sandy Hughes O’Brien, chair of the WSU board, said she is not looking forward to them.
“Its horribly unfortunate,” said O’Brien. “Our goal is that we are back to the prestige we used to be in our heyday, when we were graduating large numbers of students, and were in the (nation’s) top of graduating diverse students. It is in our blood, in our mission, it’s what we should be should be doing.”