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Dive Brief:

  • Fewer than 3% of tenured faculty members who the University of North Carolina System evaluated in the past decade did not meet job expectations, according to a newly published report.
  • The 240,000-student system released the information ahead of a meeting of its governing board Wednesday and Thursday. The board heard about the system’s post-tenure review process, a tool some critics say undermines tenure-afforded workplace protections. Of the 8,350 faculty who went through post-tenure reviews in 10 years, 244 were underachieving. 
  • Some of UNC’s 16 universities had more poorly performing professors than others, which system leaders said implied the need for more consistent and rigorous procedures, NC Newsline reported. This suggests more turmoil around tenure, which has emerged as a politically fraught issue in the past couple of years. 

Dive Insight:

Faculty advocates argue tenure, traditionally a lifetime appointment, is necessary to shield professors, particularly while they conduct potentially unpopular scholarship. Meanwhile, tenure detractors say it licenses faculty to put little effort into their jobs without consequence. 

Tenured faculty can be dismissed for many reasons, however, including if they violate institutional policy or law, or if their college is floundering financially and looks to downsize. Still, lawmakers across the country, including those in North Carolina, this year proposed tenure bans — though they largely stalled in legislatures.

The UNC system first constructed post-tenure review policies in 1997 and then updated them in 2014. They dictate that tenured faculty must be assessed every five years and that the reviews involve their colleagues. Tenured professors must also develop five-year goals, which they can retool annually.

The system’s report on post-tenure review said that 742 UNC system professors were evaluated in 2021-22, the most recent academic year studied.  

Of those, half, or 371 faculty members, exceeded job expectations, while 349 met the standards. Just 22 didn’t meet standards, and 15 faculty postponed their reviews because of COVID-19.

Overall, some UNC universities had more low-performing professors than others. 

Between 2012 and 2022, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had 71 and 52 tenured faculty, respectively, not meeting expectations.

Contrast that with Elizabeth City State University, where only two professors did not meet standards. And at UNC-Greensboro, not a single professor failed the post-tenure review.

North Carolina State and UNC-Chapel Hill are both larger than those campuses, employing about 2,500 and 4,100 faculty members, respectively, according to information on their websites.

Elizabeth City State has about 125 faculty and UNC-Greensboro has roughly 1,100, according to the most recently available federal data.

But Peter Hans, the UNC system president, did not attribute North Carolina State’s greater fail rate to its size, NC Newsline reported. He said it’s instead related to the university’s more “robust” post-tenure review. 

Making those reviews stricter could push faculty out, however. A recent American Association of University Professors survey suggested that eroding academic freedom — including weakening tenure — was one factor causing North Carolina faculty, and those in a handful of other Southern states, to seek jobs elsewhere.