Mississippi State University put faculty on post-tenure review at the highest rate during the 2021-22 school year, according to data released at a meeting of the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees. 

Post-tenure review is a kind of periodic evaluation that “goes beyond” typical evaluations by creating a pathway for a university to revoke a faculty member’s tenured status, according to the American Association of University Professors.

Out of 499 tenured faculty at Mississippi State last year, 19 faculty members – or 3.8% – were placed on post-tenure review, the highest rate of any public university in Mississippi. The institution with the second highest percentage was Mississippi Valley State University which placed 3 faculty out of 90 – or 3.3% – on post-tenure review. 

MSU and MVSU are the only two public institutions in Mississippi that require tenured faculty to go through post-tenure review in the sixth year of employment, according to a report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.

No faculty were fired or placed on a development plan as a result of post-tenure review this past year, according to the analysis.

The remaining six public universities, including the University of Mississippi Medical Center, did not place any faculty on post-tenure review last year, according to the data. Across all IHL universities, a little over 1% of all tenured faculty, who made up less than half of all faculty in Mississippi, were placed on post-tenure review last year.

The IHL board conducts this analysis annually, but the data released Thursday comes after trustees quietly revised IHL’s tenure policies earlier this year to add new criteria for post-tenure review. The data was presented on the board’s information agenda, so trustees did not publicly discuss it.

The analysis initially contained a “clerical error” for the numbers of tenured faculty on post-review tenure at Jackson State University and UMMC, Caron Blanton, IHL’s spokesperson, wrote in an email. IHL updated the numbers after an inquiry from Mississippi Today.

A type of indefinite job protection, tenure guarantees faculty can only be fired for cause or extenuating circumstances, such as egregious misconduct or the loss of departmental funding. Faculty work for years to achieve the status, and it is meant to ensure faculty can research controversial topics without fear of retaliation or political pressure.  

But ever since tenure was widely adopted by American universities in the 1940s, politicians and administrations have periodically sought to chip away at the protection it provides. By the mid-1990s, post-tenure review emerged as a new way to curtail academic freedom, according to the AAUP. The process is typically triggered after a faculty member receives one or more a negative evaluations during a set time period.

Many faculty say that post-tenure reviews are duplicative because they already undergo periodic reviews for the purpose of salary raises or appointments to university committees.  

“We already have processes in place for dealing with problematic professors,” said Dan Durkin, the chair of University of Mississippi’s faculty senate. “Post-tenure review is not even really necessary.”

In Mississippi, the purpose of post-tenure review is to “ensure tenured faculty remain effective,” according to the PEER report last year on tenure policies at the public universities. 

“A concern frequently linked to granting tenure to university faculty is that those faculty will become less productive following the receipt of tenure,” the report says. “In order to prevent that concern, the IHL Board established policies that require the annual evaluation of faculty and the establishment of a post-tenure review process for all tenured faculty.”

Durkin said that post-tenure review can make faculty risk-averse, leading some to pursue less controversial research that might be less productive. 

“Post-tenure review essentially creates tenure part two, and that changes the way professors approach things,” he said. “They may not research something that’s controversial, they may not publish papers out of concern, instead of spending time thinking and really developing something. It can fundamentally affect the way we do our jobs, and that is harmful to academia and ultimately harmful to the larger society.” 

IHL’s policy revisions earlier this year added new criteria by which faculty could be evaluated during post-tenure review, including a faculty member’s “effectiveness, accuracy and integrity in communications” as well as their “collegiality.” 

The revisions were widely criticized by faculty as vague standards that could be weaponized against marginalized faculty, particularly faculty members of color. Two national organizations – PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression– intervened, writing a letter to Alfred Rankins, IHL’s commissioner, requesting the board roll back the changes. 

Rankins’ reply defended IHL’s tenure changes as “improvements to prior policy language,” adding “in reviewing your concerns, I must point out that almost any criterion commonly used in evaluating faculty for tenure could be used by a bad actor as a pretext for denying tenure for impermissible reasons.” 

Jeremy Young, PEN America’s senior manager for free expression and education, told Mississippi Today in May that he was so concerned by Rankins’ response, he wrote IHL a second letter. Young told Mississippi Today that IHL hasn’t replied. 

Faculty are now working to implement these changes in handbooks. At UM, Durkin said the faculty senate is looking to ensure the handbook hews as close as possible to AAUP’s recommendations. 

“Everything we’re doing, we’re making sure we’re applying the filters of First Amendment and academic freedom,” Durkin said. “We’re looking to not only define what things are, but also define what they’re not.”

Post-tenure review policies vary from one university to the next, according to the legislative report. At JSU, faculty have asked the administration to clarify the university’s post-tenure review and evaluation policies, according to faculty senate meeting minutes.The current faculty handbook, which was ratified in 2011, mentions post-tenure review only one time, in the preface. The handbook does not define a clear post-tenure review process separate from the annual evaluations that faculty receive.

The faculty handbook at University of Southern Mississippi notes that post-tenure review “is not a re-evaluation of tenure but is a way to assist faculty members in their professional development and document their ongoing commitment to the University’s mission.” 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.