On the meaning of de-tenure

Update: UT changes the press release I quote below to remove the word de-tenure.

President Joe DiPietro and the UT Board of Trustees voted yesterday to make the tenure process, tenured compensation, and de-tenuring a key element of its plan to cut costs and expand revenues in the wake of reduced state support for higher education.

The Board of Trustees held its winter meeting on February 25-26 in Memphis. In recent meetings, the System President DiPietro has been talking up plans to deal with the University’s “failed business model.” This model, according to DiPietro, is based on replacing state dollars with tuition dollars. I’ll start off here by saying that that is not a “business model,” but rather a response to a “political problem.” The governor and state legislature, over the course of the last 10 years, have failed to fully fund the state’s own formula that determines its contributions to the university system.

At the June meeting, DiPietro forecast a $155M shortfall over the next ten years due to falling state contributions to the system. That forecast shortfall at the winter meeting has grown to $377M, a convenience in the context of the President’s presentation of a plan to cut costs and increase revenues. For most of the last year, I believed that DiPietro was playing a shame game with the legislature and governor (whose family name adorns myriad buildings and programs at UTK), prodding them to fully fund the state’s own formula.

Until today.

The plan DiPietro presented, and that the Board approved, centers on six points to address tuition shortfalls, forecasted salary gaps, and decaying infrastructure in the system:

  1. Program realignment and consolidation: campuses will address low-performing programs to fund program reinvestment and perform a feasibility analysis and develop a plan for program consolidations to save costs.
  2. Allocation and reallocation plans: set aside 3 percent of base year’s total unrestricted E&G expenditures to address strategic initiatives, address deferred maintenance and identify cost savings from voluntary retirement and other workforce development options.
  3. Unfunded mandates for tuition waivers and discounts: the UT System Administration will study these discounts, estimated to be $7.4 million annually System-wide.
  4. Tuition structure review: Options include expanding differential tuition, increase enrollment of out-of-state students and the 15-4 tuition plan.
  5. Non-formula fee structure: Non-formula units (Health Science Center, Institute for Public Service and Institute of Agriculture) will review whether outreach efforts are capturing actual cost of delivery and determine whether fees should be charged.
  6. Tenure and post-tenure review process: To be conducted by UT System Administration and with involvement by the Faculty Council, to look at awarding of tenure, post-tenure compensation and enacting of a de-tenure process.

The first five points read like standard responses to fiscal cuts– realignment and consolidation of programs (read, cutting departments?), fee structures (raising student costs without raising “tuition”), moving money around, etc. The last one caught my attention.

What in the world is a “de-tenure process”, and what place does tenure, a bulwark of academic freedom and security for the risks of academic training and employment, have in a conversation on cutting costs and increasing revenues?

To understand more, I watched DiPietro’s presentation of the plan to the Board of Trustees. The President noted to the board that from now on, in response to this manufactured economic crisis, all actions by the System must either cut costs or increase revenue. Here is a transcription of DiPietro’s comments on point six, which begin at 24:01 in the linked video:

The last item on the list which will be led by the System is to take a look at tenure and post-tenure review process and it will be conducted by us at the System level. This will be a review and make recommendations on needed revisions regarding post-tenure review. I would like it to include adjustments for compensation for high performers in that post-review time frame and also to look at policy for termination based on unsatisfactory performance. I will do this in concert with the Faculty Council and a group of people. We will keep them tuned in. But the reality is the post-tenure review processes that we currently have from the standpoint of the CPR program is not very effective.

So, here we have it. In a move that I don’t know any faculty were forewarned of, DiPietro has opened the door for the Board of Trustees to undo the protections of tenure at the University of Tennessee.

I tweeted that transcription, which immediately elicited a harsh response from the academics I know over there because they see it for what it is… a blatant attack on tenure in the name of cutting costs. DiPietro responded to @historianess on twitter, who called “de-tenure process” what it plainly is, an attack on tenure, with this:

@historianess I fully believe in the concept of tenure.
2/27/15, 5:55 PM

I’ve asked him to clarify how that is, on twitter, but you know, he hasn’t answered yet:

@utpresidentjoe @historianess Could you explain, then, how a tenure and a de-tenure process has any place in a convo on cost-cutting?
2/27/15, 5:59 PM

This is in direct conflict with the Knoxville campus’s push towards being a  Top 25 public university, our current campaign to improve UTK. It’s in direct conflict with many of the most cherished values of the academy and higher education. And, I’d love to provide DiPietro’s explanation for how his belief in the concept of tenure squares with having a “de-tenure process” that is not connected to disciplinary issues. If he provides one, I will post it immediately here, or provide a forum for him to do so directly. I’d really like to know, in the context of budget discussions, what the meaning of “de-tenure” actually is.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Posted in Uncategorized
23 comments on “On the meaning of de-tenure
  1. cmt152012 says:

    Tenure means nothing if it can be rescinded at will. Particularly dangerous is the idea of having administrators with no expertise in a specific field judge whether a program or a professor is performing up to standards drawn from another discipline. This is truly the end of academic freedom.

  2. jwithers38 says:

    Reblogged this on Ethnography.com and commented:
    Let the de-tenuring begin (or…I knew this was coming).

  3. […] More here as the war on faculty continues. […]

  4. justaguy says:

    Not at all surprising – tenure has been ending for a long time, it’s just being cut from the bottom. Perhaps now that their own careers are being affected, tenured faculty will start paying attention to what junior scholars have been dealing with for a long time…

  5. Roger Brown says:

    I think hand in hand with this should be adequate means to remove “underperforming”
    administrators and legislators

  6. It is not a de-tenure process. There is already at schools a post-tenure review process that occurs….the situation is most schools do not do it. The end effect is the same. My next question would be then why not have administrators reviewed every year for renewal as opposed to every 4-5 years? Very troubling for UT faculty….

  7. herronman says:

    Hopefully they will de-tenure dinosaurs who have stopped publishing, rarely or never attend faculty meetings, perform no service to the university, consistently teach under-enrolled classes, and advise few or no students. We all know those people exist. They should not be on the payroll anymore.

  8. ctb says:

    herronman, in my experience over the last twenty-odd years in academia, what you describe is an anomaly.

  9. ctb says:

    I’m not willing to cede that the President of the System misspoke in using the term “de-tenure process” in an official document presented to the BOT.

  10. herronman says:

    I’m not saying this President should be able de-tenure faculty at will, without cause. But I know so many examples of dinosaurs…it’s definitely not an anomaly.

    Performance reviews should be based on amount and quality of work, not subject matter. I know it’s difficult to separate those things, but plenty of people get denied tenure for saying or writing about the wrong thing. Why should that end with tenure?

  11. herronman says:

    I should have added, many people get denied tenure for not doing enough (publication, teaching, service), so why shouldn’t tenured people be held to that same standard? Surely you know people who have slacked off after winning tenure.

  12. ctb says:

    So, tell me more about your experience with all these dinosaurs that are worth sacrificing the principles of academic freedom and tenure for.

  13. herronman says:

    These are people, often “permanent associate professors” who teach the minimum number of courses required in their contracts (often with below average teach evaluations), haven’t published anything in a peer reviewed journal in 20 years, never present at conferences, haven’t chaired the department, and yet generally throw their weight around on hiring and promotions decisions. I don’t think academic freedom requires keeping unproductive people around, and I think it’s possible to distinguish between de-tenuring for lack of productivity vs. unpopular views. What really bugs me, though, is the idea that you have to jump through all these hoops to GET tenure, but once you have it you can lie down and sleep under the mantle of academic freedom.

  14. salvadordalai says:

    I agree, herronman. Let’s fire those bastards who have worked for the university for 20 years, right before they get to retirement age. If they can’t keep up the publishing schedule they were on in their 30s right up through their 60s, who needs ’em? Maybe we could install crystals in their hands that would start to glow if their productivity drops below a certain rate…

  15. herronman says:

    What do you think happens to adjuncts who can’t keep up as they age? Adjuncts and pre-tenure faculty have no academic freedom OR job security. Do you think a corporation would keep an employee around who is not performing at full (or close to full) speed? Why do you suppose some people never get promoted to full professor? Either lack of productivity or the full professors don’t like their ideas.

    Why should this system end when you finally reach the top rung? Sounds like hazing, doesn’t it? “Do what we say and then you’ll get to relax as one of us.” It’s a broken system built by and for the advantage of the people who hold power. Teaching and being a federal judge are the only jobs with lifetime tenure, that I know of.

    I agree that it’s important to have freedom from being fired for unpopular opinions/decisions, but I don’t think there should be freedom from earning your salary with actual productive work. Perhaps we could institute salary decreases for folks who don’t produce. You would still have a job, but you don’t earn annual increases just for showing up. There is a guy on the faculty at my institution who doesn’t even produce syllabi for his classes. He’s tenured, age 70-something, hasn’t published in 25 years, and his undergraduate classes enroll about 6 students each but he still gets paid a lot and he refuses to retire. Why would he? He’s got a great deal.

  16. herronman says:

    salvadordalai, there is a difference between publishing as much as you did in your 30s (when you may have a family to care for, as well) and publishing nothing. I’m not saying we should fire people who slow down a bit, I’m saying we should require people to publish a minimum amount–one article a year? Two every three years? Whatever it is, it should not be zero.

  17. […] University of Tennessee System has retracted the term “de-tenure” from the press release describing President DiPietro’s plan for cost cutting and revenue […]

  18. I know the word has been removed, but I imagine “de-tenuring” is actually “unhiring”? I mean, it’s not demoting someone to an untenured position, right? Though attacks on tenured faculty can make tenure seem trivial even without de-tenuring. Why not “breach of contract” in place of “de-tenuring”?

  19. etsuhemp says:

    “De-tenuring” is just another brick out of the wall of our crumbling social infrastructure.

    Any policy of de-tenuring—by whatever name one calls it— would, undoubtedly, be wielded principally by administrators seeking to prune higher cost academic deadwood (e.g., senior faculty &/or superfluous GenEd faculty now that the Tennessee executive & legislative branches have seen fit to outsource lower division undergraduate learning to the lower cost community colleges). It is _ALL_ about cost shedding and being able to involuntarily leisure (i.e., RIF, terminate with cause, etc.) the high cost of labor. This cost avoidance needs to be done short of an institution having to make a declaration of financial exigency… that would look bad.

    Also, as almost all of the administrative staff are designated “essential” to the operation and sustainability of the institution, there should be no, zero, nada conversations about de-administering these mission critical “worker bees” of these outstanding and world-class institutions. Those discussions are completely off the table. Just sayin’…

    Unfortunately, the golden age of the academy seems to be behind us. Higher Ed is no longer about knowledge and intellectual self-attainment but perceived as a mechanism for “workforce development.” As governments and corporations have “leaned out” over the years, the river of extramural funding for research has dried up to a trickle. Service to and support for our various local, regional, professional communities is what we are expected to do in our spare time… or outsource to students under the guise of “service learning.” And teaching? Who needs those old “sages on their stages” when we have the MOOC model for delivery, the Khan Academy for content, Internet badges for credentialing, and the all-powerful and all knowing WikiGoogle for, well, everything?

    The new, evolving model of the university being pushed by the politically and financially powerful appears to be based upon an idealized 2 + 2 model where students attend community colleges to “get their Gen Ed out of the way” and then transfer into one of the historic four to seven year professional development BS/BA, MS/MA/MFA, MD, etc. programs. You know, careers in business, medical, nursing, engineering, criminal justice, etc. where people can get “real” jobs… jobs that never have the taint of that ultimate liberal arts pejorative: “Would you like fries with that?”.

    The academy is being pushed—kicking and screaming—into a future replete with innovative private/public partnerships created around some type of for-profit education model using business models like Responsibility Center Management (RCM) or Wishful Fricking Thinking (WTF). Why? My guess is to assuage the hedge fund managers and Wall Street cowboys hell-bent on privatizing and monetizing public education at all levels. If you don’t believe it, just a good look at how public health has over the decades been disassembled and monetized to fit into our well-honed, free market-based healthcare system based, primarily, upon tax law. American exceptionalism indeed.

    But, to pull off across-the-board privatization of public Higher Ed, you have to do a few things:
    * Create a crisis. Check—chronically defund state support far beyond lean into anorexia
    * Demonize the workers—Tenure => unproductive, complacent, deadbeat educators
    * Silence the critics—Ignore pesky things like shared governance
    * Remove institutional memory—Hire only politically insecure, part-time faculty.

    The Academy of The Future will be run by highly trained, MBA-trained professionals overseeing a dedicated cadre of part-time adjunct instructors laboring on-line under the supervision of a core of academically credentialed “professors.” _EVERY_ cost saving, higher productivity idea will be a good idea. What’s good for our institutional investors focussed intently upon next quarter’s ROI is good for the institution and the nation. Trust us, we are here to “Make the World a Better Place(TM).”

    -Rant over- Thank you for listening to another aging academic shout into the wind…

  20. […] “De-tenure.” Don’t worry, it’s just another regrettable drafting […]

  21. […] To no one's surprise—I hope—the University of Tennessee president announced a plan for post-tenure review to help close the budget gap, presumably because it will allow them to fire tenured faculty who no […]

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