Sunday, February 3, 2013

Disciplining your dead wood... even if the old logs are tenured

Sean Connery at the 2008 Edinburgh Internation...
Sean Connery at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tenure over the decades, if not to say centuries, has assumed the aura of the Holy Grail. Hearing the word conjures up an image of Indiana Jones pouring water from Christ's chalice onto the wounded chest of his father, the elder Professor Jones, played by Sean Connery in the third of Spielberg's famous trilogy. Steam rises from Professor Jones' chest and he is magically bullet-proof.

Because tenure has taken on this aura, too often we tolerate the "dead wood" on our faculties. A professor at an institution where I once worked comes to mind. Denied promotion years ago, he became a phantom, slipping onto campus to teach his classes and to hold the minimum number of office hours, then vanishing like the early-morning fog on our academic quad. "What can we do?" shrugged a frustrated chair. "We can't fire him. He's got tenure."
True. Terminating a tenured professor typically requires solid evidence of an extremely serious offense like sexual harassment, theft or research dishonesty.
Does this mean progressive discipline is an impossibility? Absolutely not. Few court cases can be found on this question, but those reported support the conclusion that step-by-step disciplinary action can be applied to a tenured professor as well as to any staffer on your campus.
What are some of the steps that might be taken?
The least severe is probably a written reprimand to the professor's personnel file. While this may seem a small step for an administrator, it can be a giant step on the road to reforming a recalcitrant senior faculty member. I have seen full professors alter inappropriate behavior in response to such a letter from our provost.
More severe steps can include denial of a scheduled pay increase; a reduction in salary, either temporary or permanent; and suspension without pay. All have been upheld by various courts in a variety of jurisdictions. In short, tenure does not mean retirement-in-place. Your deadwood can be disciplined.

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