In mid-October, the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia voted unanimously to weaken tenure protections for faculty across its 26 institutions. This vote took place despite faculty protests and a petition signed by hundreds of USG faculty requesting that the board delay the vote until faculty concerns were addressed. The fact that the vote came hard on the heels of the board’s refusal to implement a mask mandate—let alone a vaccine mandate—during the state’s worst coronavirus outbreak, added insult to injury for faculty who were required to teach hundreds of students in crowded classrooms with no social distancing.
The end result of these twin assaults goes way beyond the reputational disaster that has unfolded in the national press and on social media channels. To be sure, that will have its impact for years (maybe even decades) to come, as many of the nation’s best students, staff and faculty shun Georgia’s flagship public colleges and universities in favor of institutions devoid of such overt political meddling. As former Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough said recently, “What makes Georgia tick, what makes Georgia look good in the world and in the eyes of the nation is higher education. You need to be careful you don’t mess that equation up. Because you can lose it, and the state will regret it forever.”
Much closer to home, and more immediate, is the loss of the faculty’s trust in the regents as stewards of higher education in Georgia. Research universities must constantly evolve to meet the needs of an ever-shifting landscape of technologies, societal trends, funding and student needs. Formal mechanisms exist to give voice to ideas and concerns from faculty, staff and students alike, with a shared understanding that the best policies and initiatives will emerge from deep collaboration between these groups and with university leadership. When a board of political appointees wades into the delicate area of faculty tenure protections, faculty input is critical to a successful process and outcome. In this case, a flawed process led to a flawed outcome that will have the consequence (intended or not) of eroding academic freedom.
Simply put, faculty will be more fearful of speaking to their expertise in the politically charged arenas surrounding such topics as climate change, public health, systemic racism and voting rights, for fear of being targeted for special scrutiny along a newly streamlined process for termination with cause. But the process failure is equally concerning, as it sets a precedent whereby formal channels of communication—in this case faculty governance via a faculty senate—are short-circuited. The result? Low faculty morale and faculty disengagement at a time when higher education faces an unprecedented set of challenges along with unique opportunities for growth and social impact.
With all the focus on faculty tenure and academic freedom, it’s easy to lose sight of the real losers in this story: the roughly 330,000 students who attend University System of Georgia institutions. In normal times, they depend on faculty to serve up the latest knowledge using advanced pedagogical methods, to shepherd them through their first research experiences, to mentor and sponsor them as they transition into their professional lives, and more. During the pandemic, faculty are bending over backwards to maintain these basic services even as they juggle a host of disruptions and new demands. They arrange for online learning for students who are sick or in quarantine; navigate disruptions to their research workflow, such as lab closures and travel suspensions; and provide much-needed emotional support to students in varying levels of pandemic-related distress. Through thick and thin, faculty have an unfailing allegiance to their students. However, the devaluing of faculty voices and perspectives even as faculty compromise their own physical and mental health, as well as that of their families, in an all-out effort to meet student needs makes faculty question whether such efforts are valued by the Board of Regents. The irony is that one of the new provisions in the updated faculty tenure evaluation is a “student success” criteria, but student success depends on faculty engagement, which in turn depends on faculty feeling that they are valued members of the academic community.
Public institutions of higher education exist because the public recognizes the lasting benefits of deep investments in university research and education programs. These include their roles as engines of economic and workforce development, and as creators of new knowledge that improves the human condition. The public has a right to hear directly from faculty experts about the challenges of our times, and faculty are generally eager to share their knowledge as long as protections for academic freedom are in place. And policy makers are increasingly dependent on expert synthesis of complex data and findings to inform evidence-based policymaking, ideally through the free exchange of information and ideas. As a climate scientist who is heavily engaged in the public discourse around climate change, I can attest to the volume of partisan-fueled attacks on those of us who do choose to venture outside the so-called “ivory tower.” But when those same forces begin to erode faculty protections from within, the perceived risks of sharing one’s expertise with the broader public and/or policy makers are greatly elevated. And when we need them the most, faculty may reasonably remain silent and retreat to the relative safety of their classrooms and research labs.
This is not to say that tenure reform isn’t needed. Nobody is served by those handful of tenured faculty who either squander precious resources via chronic underperformance or, worse yet, inflict lasting harm on generations of students through systematic abuse (including sexual harassment, bullying and/or exploitation). But by creating a blanket policy that opens the door, however slightly, to political interference in the tenure process, the regents of the University System of Georgia have weakened rather than strengthened higher education in Georgia. Even more worrying, they set a precedent for replicating such policies in other public university systems across the nation. And that is something that should concern all of us.