/Professors in Hawaii face major changes to tenure system

Professors in Hawaii face major changes to tenure system


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The University of Hawai‘i’s Board of Regents won’t vote on a sweeping set of proposals limiting who can be tenured or even hired — for now.

This a welcome reprieve for professors across the state, who together submitted some 600 pages of comments opposing the proposals to the regents ahead of their most recent meeting.

But these professors say the danger to tenure looms still: the controversial proposals have been deferred to a special ad hoc committee that includes all members of the board.

This new committee will review the proposals further. It will also consider findings from a separate tenure task force from the Hawaii Legislature, which hasn’t been too friendly to tenure of late. Earlier this year, legislators voted to fire a specific professor at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center via a budget measure, on the grounds that he took in a large salary but didn’t teach any classes. Previously, Senator Donna Kim, chair of the Legislature’s higher education committee, requested from the university a list of professors who did not teach classes and did not bring in extramural funding, saying they were contributing to rising tuition costs.

Faculty members tend to blame rising tuition costs on long-term cuts to state funding for higher education, including a nearly 10 percent cut to the university system’s budget announced this spring.

In any case, the Legislature’s position seems to be reflected in one of the proposals now under consideration by the regents: that tenure be reserved for instructional faculty and librarians only, not researchers or extension professors. Another proposal would link tenure-track searches and conferral of tenure to student enrollment numbers.

“We cannot celebrate just yet,” the university’s Professional Assembly faculty union told members this week, following the board’s deferral. “We have come very far and cannot afford to let our guard down.”

The university system hasn’t commented in any depth on the proposals, but Dan Meisenzahl, a university spokesperson, said that the administration “wholeheartedly supported” the board’s move for more discussion.

Michael Bruno, provost at the flagship Mānoa campus, also wrote to faculty members earlier this month to “express my unyielding commitment to and support for tenure, which represents a crucial component of our ability to recruit, mentor and retain the very best faculty.”

A Tenure Task Force With No Faculty Members

Regents established the Tenure Permitted Interaction Group in February and charged it with reviewing the history, purpose and current system processes surrounding tenure.

The task group included four regents, administrators from across the system and Christian Fern, professional director of the faculty union. There were no faculty members in the group.

Following early discussions, the group agreed to focus on three areas, according to its eventual report: Hawai‘i’s current tenure classification system, periodic or posttenure review practices, and “the alignment of tenure with the mission and priorities of the university.”

Ultimately, the group recommended to the board that:

Tenured and tenure-track positions be limited to faculty members and librarians who are “engaged in direct instruction consisting of active engagement with students” in the classroom or other venues.
Prior to recruitment for tenure-track positions and awarding tenure, administrations shall ensure that the position fulfills “current enrollment requirements and strategic growth priorities for the university and the state,” that there are no qualified professors in other academic units, that the “balance of tenure-track and other faculty is appropriate given enrollment, mission and accreditation standards,” and that the unit is “successful and relevant in contributing to the institutional mission and goals.”
Periodic reviews continue to happen every five years and that deans, chancellors and other academic administrators make sure processes “minimize conflict of interest within units, and ensure balanced, diverse and relevant input, including that of faculty peers.”
Institutions develop guidelines and procedures for periodic review, submit them to the president for approval and report annually to the board on outcomes.
Tenure criteria “prioritize the necessity for faculty to be adaptable in meeting the changing needs of students and the university,” including changes in mode of delivery of instruction.
Faculty members shall engage in research and scholarship that “that advances innovation, creates new knowledge and knowledge practices, and benefits students as well as the broader community,” and that they shall engage in service “inside the university and in the community.”
Nontenurable academic personnel shall be evaluated every three years.

Submitted to the regents along with the report was a formal letter of dissent from Fern, director of the faculty union and the closest thing to a faculty representative in the group. Fern’s note criticizes the premise of the task force, saying its formation was “based in part on the bold, even vindictive, attacks on individual faculty members and the autonomy of the University of Hawaii,” including by the Legislature. Fern further criticized how the group approached its work, saying that many members “came to the table with erroneous, preconceived notions about tenure, which unfortunately has impacted the objectivity of the group’s overall focus and discussions.” He accused the group of falsely seeing tenure as an obstacle to quality teaching instead of promoting an environment for optimal instruction, and as an “iron-clad” job protection, even though faculty members may already be fired for cause and substandard performance. Fern also said that it was “evident that there was a predetermined agenda and intent on dismantling the UH’s tenure system.”

Seeking a ‘Serious Conversation’

In separate written testimony to the board, scores of faculty members and community members argued that the proposals seemed to be solving a problem that doesn’t exist, while real problems — such as the pandemic and major state budget cuts — remain.

Cynthia Reeves, the Maui County administrator for the Mānoa campus’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Cooperative Extension, argued, for instance, against blocking extension professors from tenure eligibility. Extension faculty members are paid largely with federal funds, she said, so they don’t drain the university’s budget. Moreover, she said, they often bring significant outside grant funding to the university.

Jonathan K. Osorio, dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at Mānoa, wrote to the board that if it “wants a serious conversation about what is wrong with how we earn tenure and how we review our faculty, then this sort of committee must do the proper research.” This is much more complex than classifying faculty members who teach as revenue generators and others as drains on the system, he said, referring to apparent attitudes within the Legislature, and “must take place with real faculty and real departments.”

Osorio continued, “If changes are to be made in how and who earns tenure, it needs to be done through negotiation with the faculty and their union, and for the board to be dictating this with almost no supporting evidence for any of the claims and assumptions made by the [group] risks so much: a fight with the union; the loss of accreditation; and the subsequent loss of faculty and students; for almost nothing in return.”

During the regents’ meeting last week, just before the vote to defer the proposals, Regent Benjamin Kudo defended the group’s work, saying that “many laws” now protect academic freedom, and “many of the universities are modifying tenure or eliminating it totally,” so the question became “whether tenure was a concept that really had a place in today’s academic world.”

Taking on a ‘Sacred Cow’

It was time, Kudo said, “to grit ourselves and bite the bullet and take the arrows of looking at something that was so sensitive and such a sacred cow to everyone.”

Agreeing with another regent who served on the committee, Jan Sullivan, Kudo said that “everyone conducted themselves very professionally in this group and tried their best.” Invoking the pandemic, Kudo added, “Everyone’s intention was to make this university better and by better, I mean that it could react to the situation like a pandemic in a fiscal crisis.”

But many faculty members remain unconvinced that dramatically altering the tenure system will make the university better.

David Duffy, Gerritt Parmele Wilder Chair at Hawai‘i’s School of Life Sciences at Mānoa, said this week that it’s already “difficult to attract and retain faculty in Hawaii because of the high cost of living, limited opportunities for spousal employment and isolation. Will potential faculty be willing to make a commitment to an institution not willing to commit to them?”

Like other faculty critics, Duffy underscored the fact that no faculty members were involved in the task group, and he said its work reflects “no apparent understanding of the complexity and diversity of university activities.”

The charge for the committee was “basically to gather information concerning tenure,” and “they came back with fully worded draft policies,” Duffy continued. The proposals remove tenure except for those actively teaching in the classroom, he said, yet Hawai‘i has researchers, specialists and extension agents who do extensive informal teaching outside the classroom, leading graduate students, labs and community health and agriculture projects. Moreover, he said, “Our existing five-year reviews of tenured faculty would no longer be just by peers, but management could include quote-unquote market considerations, essentially making tenure only for five years.”

Karla Hayashi, director of Kilohana: the Academic Success Center at the university system’s Hilo campus, said she found Kudo’s statement — that academic freedom doesn’t necessarily have to be ensured by tenure anymore — ironic, and even “hypocritical,” given that a clear impetus for the task group’s creation was the current “legislative overreach into the university’s authority over hiring and classification of employees.”

Hayashi’s outstanding concerns about the proposals are many: that they tie hiring and tenure to demand, which could cement the university’s mission as one “driven increasingly and perhaps only in response to market trends”; that reclassifying faculty members as described could disproportionately impact women and people of color in a negative way, based on the kinds of roles they perform; and that they seem to ignore the existing faculty collective bargaining agreement, which includes interventions for employees who are not meeting job expectations.

The regents who “concocted” the proposals seem to have used “lifetime employment” as their working definition of tenure, Hayashi said. But “the reality is too many of the UH administrators choose to ignore problems rather than deal with these.”

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