Shared Governance: Part One of a Series on Tenure Denial Based on SRIs

Testimony for an Appeal of a Denial of Tenure

Scott Abbott

Professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy and Humanities

 

            I’m pleased to testify today before a Faculty Senate Appeals Committee. Your generosity and expertise is important in this particular case and for our university at large. I thank you for your serviced.

I was asked to testify for three reasons. 

 

In 2018 this member of the faculty served as a disciplinary advisor for a thesis written by a student in the Integrated Studies program. She was not an especially thoughtful student, but was willing to follow directions and worked hard to meet expectations. Advising such a student requires a mentor who is both supportive and demanding. “There were,” I wrote, in a letter included in the tenure portfolio, “several drafts to each of which [they] responded quickly and helpfully.” I witnessed this exchange over the course of months and through numerous drafts. The student would not have finished the thesis without [their] supportive, demanding, and timely responses to her work.

I’ll note here that administrators have mentioned during Department Chair training meetings that they don’t pay attention to peer evaluations because they are always positive. Was my letter even read? Was it discounted because it was positive? Was my letter given the same attention as the relatively small number of student complaints about timeliness? 

 

Another reason I was asked to testify is that since I came to UVSC in 1999 I have served on several Faculty Senate committees writing or revising UVU policies, including our policy on tenure.

 

Finally, I was asked to testify because my work as a founding officer of the UVU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors has required, over the years, that I argue for due process and shared government and against arbitrary and capricious decisions in some twenty cases like this one.

 

The Arbitrary and Capricious Standard

UVU Policy #646 on faculty appeals for tenure lists “arbitrary and capricious” as a permissible ground for appeal, but does not define it. The Provost’s Office makes clear their definition of arbitrary and capricious: “[This member of the faculty . . . cannot in good conscience argue that the Provost did not rely on documented evidence. . . .”

There is a more robust way to decide whether our administration has made an unfair judgment. Courts, including the Supreme Court, have approached an arbitrary and capricious standard by asking questions like these:

·      Did the decision fail to consider an important aspect of or relevant factors related to the problem?

·      Was there adequate consideration of the circumstances?

·      Does the decision offer an explanation that runs counter to the evidence?

The decision made by UVU administrators was made without consideration of relevant factors; it failed to adequately consider circumstances; and as a result they offered an explanation of the denial that runs counter to the evidence. 

Shared Governance

UVU Policy #635 on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities states that

4.9.2 . . . faculty members have primary responsibility for curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction . . . and faculty status. 

4.9.3 . . . faculty members have designated responsibilities concerning . . . the granting of tenure. 

That same policy references the American Association of University Professors’ Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities and even includes several direct quotations from the AAUP statement. The paragraph cited includes these thoughts:

Faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility. . . . The primary responsibility of the faculty for such matters is based upon the fact that its judgment is central to general educational policy. . . . [and] there is the more general competence of experienced faculty personnel committees.[1]

Experienced faculty personnel committees have “the more general competence” in judgments about their colleagues’ teaching, expertise unavailable to administrators

It is clear that members of a department’s RTP Committee have the competence to make decisions about the quality of their colleagues’ teaching (which is the issue in today’s case) because they 

·      know the discipline, 

·      they know and practice the pedagogies relevant to the discipline,

·      they know what skills and knowledge any given course must teach to move students through their curriculum,

·      they have visited one another’s classes,

·      and finally, with only one or two tenure decisions to make in a given year, they have the time and responsibility to study the teaching portion of the tenure portfolio carefully and with, to say it again, professional competence.

 

Because the distance between a disciplinary department and the administration is relatively vast, because administrators lack competence in the pedagogy and scholarship of a given discipline, because administrators have little familiarity with the requirements of a given curriculum, because, in short, administrators lack the experience and competence inherent in members of the RTP Committee, the AAUP recommends that  “The governing board and president should, on questions of faculty status, as in other matters where the faculty has primary responsibility, concur with the faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.”

 

Relevant Factors that Were Ignored

 

            Were the following reasons for denying tenure cited by the administration truly compelling and stated in detail, or were they arbitrary and capricious?

 

·      The candidate supposedly failed to mitigate complaints raised by several students on SRIs and noted in the midterm review.

·      There was an ostensible “downward trend in [the candidate’s] SRI scores between the midterm review … and the application for tenure.” 

·      The candidate’s portfolio purportedly “lacked evidence of sustained, expected levels of teaching effectiveness.”

 

            This meagre list demonstrates that the tenure decision ignored critical pieces of evidence.

 

I will end my testimony with a list of critically relevant factors. A blanket claim that administrators considered all the following factors will not be enough for this hearing. Satisfying answers must be specific and detailed if we are to believe that each relevant factor was considered seriously.

 

#1: The syllabi included in the portfolio reveal whether or not the courses are rigorous, whether they include assignments relevant to the curriculum, whether they provide materials that help students know how to succeed in the class, and so on. 

There is no evidence that syllabi were consulted.

 

#2: [The candidate’s] teaching narrative included in the portfolio reveals the range and number of courses taught, the impressive pedagogical steps taken to “refine existing teaching methods and to learn new pedagogies,” the engaged learning activities incorporated into classes, etc. 

There is no evidence that this extensive information was considered.

 

#3: [The candidate’s] SRI scores ranging in the 4.0 level might well be judged as evidence of sustained excellence, indications that their courses are rigorous and challenging. Instead, the scores purportedly fail to meet some level unstated in any tenure document or policy. How do the candidate’s scores compare with other professors at UVU whose grading scales are similarly rigorous? 

      There is no indication that this possibility was considered or that such a comparison was made.

 

A side note here: If administrators require high SRI scores for tenure, they are interfering with our academic freedom to develop rigorous courses and grading methods that research shows will lower our scores but that we deem good for our students.

 

#4: How did the number of student complaints after the midterm compare to the number preceding the midterm assessment? 

      Considering this question would have revealed that such complaints decreased by 50% and specific comments about [the issue at hand] shrank to 2%.

 

#5: Did administrators consider the carefully reasoned pedagogical choice to assign and respond thoughtfully to substantial assignments written by a large number of students each semester, a commitment that slows response time but reveals a dedication to student learning?

      No.

 

#6: Was the RTP Committee’s unanimous judgment that [the candidate] “has fulfilled . . . expectations of continuous and sustained excellence in teaching,” along with the concurring assessments by the Chair and the Dean, simply ignored? 

The only consideration of the professional competence of the candidate’s colleagues appears as this dismissive sentence: “the Provost is concerned that the RTP Committee, Chair, and Dean may have diverged from university policy in recommending Dr. Schlosnagle for tenure.

 

There is no evidence that any of these relevant factors were considered. The decision to deny tenure on the sole basis of SRI scores and student comments was arbitrary and capricious. Upholding the administrators’ decision would be injurious to the shared governance that should leave tenure decisions primarily in the hands of those with the necessary competence.

 

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