WSU chief, union at odds on tougher prof reviews

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Every year, Wayne State University faculty members put together a package to showcase their work, make their case for a raise and face mentoring if their performance falls below expectations.

But the process, spelled out in the WSU faculty’s contract, falls short of what other universities do, according to Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson.


That’s why Wilson is making the case for a controversial process in higher education known as post-tenure review — and he has vowed to get it into the next faculty contract in the wake of WSU’s attempt to fire five tenured medical school faculty the university says have not performed adequately.

Post-tenure review polices vary among schools. Proponents generally see it as an accountability measure while opponents regard it as an ongoing threat to a professor’s tenure — a fundamental value in academia, set up to protect a scholar’s free speech and academic freedom.

Candidates must demonstrate excellence in teaching and achievement to get tenure. Once it is granted, a faculty member cannot be terminated except for just cause.

Wayne State’s faculty union president opposes post-tenure review, along with other local union leaders, because he regards it as a threat to faculty members’ tenure.

“The provisions we have negotiated in our contract address any deficiencies in tenured faculty,” said Charles Parrish, president of the WSU American Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors. “We don’t believe in the meat ax approach you find in other places. This is just an attack on the faculty by administrators.”


Wilson, however, said post-tenure review is important, especially since Wayne State is in the midst of rare proceedings in academia as it attempts to terminate numerous professors portrayed as not doing their jobs.

“The point of tenure is not so you can just stop working,” said Wilson. “In post-tenure review, you no longer have to do the exact same things to get tenure. It’s not as rigorous. But you have to be doing something.”

Wilson added that post-tenure review could have headed off hearings for the five WSU medical school professors, which began in late March and continue this summer.

The first professor, Richard Needleman, who went through a two-day hearing, recently resigned instead of continuing with the process, Parrish said.

A professor in the WSU biochemistry department, Needleman was hired in 1978, granted tenure in 1984 and paid $154,115 annually. He did not respond to several requests for comment.

Another of the targeted faculty members took an early retirement that will become effective in three years, during which he will work part time at WSU, Parish said.

Of the remaining three professors, two are scheduled for hearings in June and August, with one still awaiting a date.

“We could have avoided all of this if there had been post-tenure review,” Wilson said.

As part of professional review, Wayne State faculty are required to put together an annual report that includes an updated professional record, a summary of teaching evaluations by students, current activities and an overview of the past three years of the faculty member’s work, according to the WSU contract.

Faculty members are judged on their teaching, research and service in the community or to Wayne State, according to the WSU faculty contract. The report is submitted to a salary committee, made up of professors elected in each department, along with the department chair.

The committee assesses each faculty member and awards merit raises, Parrish said. If committee members think that the faculty member is showing deficiencies in teaching, research or service, they can recommend mentoring for up to three years.

“If the mentoring does not work out, the administration can initiate tenure revocation proceedings,” Parrish said. “That is essentially our response to post-tenure review.”

While Wilson said the process currently is “convoluted,” WSU officials declined to speculate on how a post-tenure review might be different.

Murky national landscape

It’s not clear how widespread post-tenure review is among universities in Michigan, or nationwide.

The AAUP’s national office does not conduct surveys on the practice, and is unaware of any recent surveys, spokeswoman Laura Markwardt said.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer in the AAUP Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, added that the term “post-tenure review” covers a wide range of practices, so if institutions have such a program, it does not mean they are all the same.

A 2016 report in the academic journal Academic Medicine showed that 41 percent of medical schools had post-tenure review, according to a survey in which 94 schools responded.

A Detroit News survey of Michigan universities showed that the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University and Oakland University do not have post-tenure review, while Michigan State University and Northern Michigan University do.

Lisa Minnick, president of WMU-AAUP, sees the process as a way for administrators to reconsider someone’s tenure, and also at times to circumvent due process.

“Accountability is important for faculty as well as for administrators,” said Minnick, an associate professor of English and gender and women’s studies. “But that is not the same thing as post-tenure review as it exists at some institutions, where these reviews can be used – improperly, in my view – as a means essentially to reconsider a faculty member’s earned tenure.

“Post-tenure review can also be used inappropriately as a way to try to circumvent due process in cases when allegations are made against tenured faculty.”

Michigan differences

Kenneth Mitton, president of the Oakland University-AAUP, added that post-tenure review originated at a university system outside Michigan two decades ago “so legislators could say they were making sure there was no ‘dead wood’ tenured professors spending tax dollars.

“My colleagues and I do this because of our own desires and drive and passion about our fields of scholarship,” said Mitton, an associate professor of biomedical sciences. “Is there a drive switch that turns that off when you get promoted to associate professor with tenure? That hypothesis is bogus, as is the concept that post-tenure review weeds out suddenly lazy professors.”

Michigan State University conducts post-tenure reviews through an annual process, though it is not specifically termed that way, MSU spokesman Jason Cody said.

“Performance is monitored through the use of annual written performance evaluations as required by the policy on ‘Faculty Review,’ ” Cody said. “Work performance, as determined in such reviews, is to be reflected in annual merit salary adjustments and as a basis for advice and suggestions for improvement.”

Some accountability measures are appropriate to allow a check on someone who has begun failing to do basic tasks, especially adequate teaching, said Mae Kuykendall, an MSU law professor and former president of the university’s AAUP membership chapter, which recently become inactive.

“But accountability is a problematic concept insofar as it assumes reliable, good-faith reviews without any taint of motives not related to assuring sound performance by faculty members,” Kuykendall said. “Hence, designing a sound program not subject to potential abuse is a challenge, one not to be undertaken lightly.

“One designed by administrators and imposed top-down is almost surely not a good means of accomplishing the goal of maintaining a strong faculty or treating others with regard for their dignity or their earned respect,” she said.

At Northern, faculty are evaluated annually after they reach tenure until they are promoted to the rank of professor. Once tenured at that rank, faculty are evaluated once every five years, said Brent Graves, a biology professor and president of the NMU-AAUP.

Graves wasn’t certain how long NMU has had post-tenure review, but it’s likely that it’s been in place since the Upper Peninsula university union was formed in the 1970s.

“We just to make sure that people are doing their jobs well, and to provide feedback to help them do their jobs better,” he said.

Additionally, Northern also formally evaluates department heads, a practice that wasn’t always done.

“People need feedback,” Graves said. “People need to know what they are doing well, and what they could be doing better.”

Tenure at Wayne State has been an issue that has drawn national attention over the years.

During the faculty union’s last contract negotiations with Wayne State in 2012-13, there was talk about a proposal to end tenure, possibly making WSU the first university in the nation to take such a step.

At the time, the faculty union, which represents over 1,500 faculty members, said administration negotiators proposed that a tenured or probationary faculty member could be suspended or terminated for adequate cause. At the time, Allan Gilmour was president of Wayne State.

Matt Lockwood, WSU spokesman, said the proposals did not make it into the eight-year contract, approved in March 2013 and expiring in March 2021. But he stressed it was not an attempt to abolish tenure at the university.

“That was not the case,” Lockwood said. “We were trying to get post-tenure review.”