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Proposed University of Arkansas System policy spells trouble for academic freedom

The University of Arkansas System is considering changes to its tenure policies that some faculty are concerned will threaten academic freedom. Based on our experience and our observation of faculty disciplinary cases, their concerns are well-warranted.

Law professor Joshua Silverstein of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has given the proposed revisions a hard look, and concludes they amount to “a striking attack on academic freedom and tenure,” zeroing in on one particularly troubling change. As part of a new definition of “cause,” the system’s draft policy lists a “pattern of disruptive conduct or unwillingness to work productively with colleagues” as one of the offenses that can lead to a tenured faculty member’s termination. As Silverstein notes, this is a troublingly slippery and subjective definition. And as the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, this definition veers into the territory of punishing faculty members based on their “collegiality,” a practice condemned by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

The AAUP’s “On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation” lays out the dangers of this standard, which can easily be used as a cudgel for enforcing orthodoxy and chilling dissent:

[C]ollegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.

During my time at FIRE and my experience investigating faculty cases, I have seen how these charges can work. Collegiality-related charges are easily and frequently thrown in as a laundry-list item in faculty investigations, and often it is the only charge universities can make stick. It’s a difficult charge for faculty to fight — just about any behavior could be subjectively cast as un-collegial, after all — and therefore an easy charge with which to gain leverage. If the Arkansas system’s policy were enacted, how would an “unwillingness to work productively with colleagues” be defined? The policy provides no indication, so your guess is as good as mine.

The AAUP’s collegiality statement also advocates that “an absence of collegiality ought never, by itself, to constitute a basis for nonreappointment, denial of tenure, or dismissal for cause.” FIRE certainly agrees, given the subjective ways with which collegiality can be defined. Yet the proposed Arkansas policy, by its wording, would seem to allow just that, with poor collegiality being one of eight listed violations sufficient in themselves to justify termination. (I encourage readers to check out Silverstein’s annotated version of the revised policy and his commentary on the policy, posted on the blog of professor Richard Peltz-Steele.)

Silverstein points out an additional concern tied to the ability to terminate employment  based on un-collegial behavior: the possibility that a single negative performance review on these grounds could constitute sufficient reason for termination. As Silverstein notes, there is some question as to the timeframe in which such discipline may be carried out; the draft policy prescribes that post-tenure review procedures “shall not allow greater than one academic year” for an unsatisfactory review to be “substantially remedied,” but also holds out that “a shortened timeframe may be utilized” for remediation. There is also some ambiguity as to whether one or two unsatisfactory reviews would be required to kickstart the termination process.

Whatever the particulars, however, it doesn’t change the fact that subjectively un-collegial behavior alone could give University of Arkansas System institutions grounds to terminate a professor if this new policy is approved.  We hope the administration takes these concerns seriously and responds accordingly, and we’ll keep Newsdesk readers updated on the policy’s progress.

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