When West Virginia University proposed changes to its faculty tenure, evaluation, and termination policy last fall, FIRE sounded the alarm that it would pose a serious threat to academic freedom. Now West Virginia faculty have formally voted — by an overwhelming margin — against the plan to water down tenure. While FIRE commends the WVU faculty for bravely standing up for academic freedom, it remains to be seen if the university system will follow suit.
The proposed revisions to the faculty evaluation guidelines, introduced as part of the provost’s “Academic Transformation” initiative, added a process for terminating tenured faculty for unsatisfactory performance to the annual evaluation policy. The draft revisions originally mandated a recommendation of termination after two unsatisfactory performance reviews in either consecutive years or in two-of-three categories — research, teaching, and service — in a single year.
In contrast, the current policy does not include any process for termination through annual evaluations. Rather, annual evaluations for tenured and tenure-track faculty focus on professional development, assessing progress toward tenure or promotion, and eligibility for merit salary raises. Some faculty members argued that the proposed changes would place WVU’s termination policy well outside the norm for other Big 12 universities, which tend to more closely resemble WVU’s current policy of requiring a hearing for termination of tenured faculty.
The original draft proposal also incorporated WVU’s Employee Code of Conduct into the evaluation process, subjecting faculty to assessment on whether they “[i]nteract with others in a positive, respectful and appropriate manner” and “[r]espect the decisions that have been made in the best interest of the University.”
FIRE wrote WVU President E. Gordon Gee in November, voicing our concerns about the proposed termination policy, as well as a proposed conflict-of-interest rule governing faculty’s private, extramural speech. As we wrote at the time:
[A] policy for dismissing tenured faculty based on unsatisfactory annual performance evaluations would eliminate the procedural safeguards of tenure that are most protective of academic freedom. Consequently, the policy will chill risk-taking, innovation, and controversial speech as faculty bear the burden of “recurrently ‘satisfy[ing]’ administrative officers rather than the basic standards of their profession.”
President Gee ignored our letter, as well as our attempt to follow up with his office via email. Hopefully he will be more receptive now to feedback from faculty.
The Office of the Provost held multiple town halls with concerned faculty throughout the fall and opened up the document for comments, ultimately making several changes to the original draft in response to faculty members’ concerns. Specifically, the provost updated the draft revisions to replace “must” with “may”: Now, instead of mandating a termination recommendation after two unsatisfactory reviews, the proposed policy states faculty “may” be recommended for termination after two unsatisfactory ratings. The provision incorporating the Code of Conduct into the evaluation process was also removed prior to the faculty vote.
After twice postponing the vote, faculty members finally had their say on Jan. 18. Of 715 total votes cast, 494 voted against, overwhelmingly rejecting the proposed revisions.
Unfortunately, the university is not bound by the results of the vote, meaning it may implement the proposed revisions despite faculty opposition. According to Inside Higher Ed, on Monday, a WVU spokeswoman wrote in an email:
The university will take into account the results of the vote, as well as additional feedback provided from faculty during this process. We are currently determining next steps, and we hope to further engage faculty in making positive and necessary changes to the current university tenure and promotion and faculty evaluation document.
WVU’s faculty demonstrated they care about academic freedom and don’t believe the proposed policy revisions will adequately protect it. Hopefully President Gee and the administration will heed their warning and drop this damaging policy proposal.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
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