“It’s unworkable.” FAU Faculty Senate, United Faculty of Florida push back on proposed tenure rule

The Board of Trustees has not determined when the vote will take place.

Photo courtesy of FAU Board of Trustees website.

Photo courtesy of FAU Board of Trustees website.

Joseph Acosta, Business Manager

Editors Note: Joseph Acosta has a parent who is on the tenure track at Florida Atlantic University. However, they were not consulted in the writing or editing of this story.

A proposed rule change by the FAU Board of Trustees could alter how the promotion and tenure process is handled at the university, including the Board gaining access to professors’ political affiliations and donations. Both the Faculty Senate and United Faculty of Florida (UFF) are fighting the proposal, calling it “unworkable”.

The Board of Trustees — the university’s 13-member governing board — is proposing a change to the promotion and tenure process that would grant the Board the final decision to approve or deny the grant of tenure, in addition to granting the Board any access to documents or information from any candidate they request. 

“The primary reason tenure exists is for academic freedom,” Director of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies within Arts and Letters and member of the FAU Faculty Senate Steering Committee William Trapani said. Trapani went on to say that tenure allows professors to conduct research “without political pressure or interference.”

“The university is a safe space to engage in ideas and controversial topics that you wouldn’t be able to outside of the university,” communications professor and President of the FAU Branch of the United Faculty of Florida Deandre Poole said. 

At the April 20 Board of Trustees meeting, Barbara Feingold, a new member of the Board of Trustees, brought up the idea of the Board “knowing about professors’ political affiliations and donations,” according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I’m concerned about tenure moving forward. I speak not just for myself but for the governor. I can’t think of any other position out there where people have a job for life,” she said.

The FAU branch of UFF became aware of this shortly after the meeting was held. Outside of the Faculty Senate President and Student Body President, all members of the Board are appointed by the governor, Feingold being the latest member approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

In previous years, the FAU promotion and tenure process had no involvement from the Board of Trustees, according to Poole.

Professors must teach at the university for three to five years until a process Poole calls “third-year review” begins, where university staff check professors to make sure that they are meeting all the tenure requirements, such as publishing articles or books. In the fifth year, Poole said, professors officially go up for tenure and promotion. Peers in the same department review professors, then peers in the professor’s same college. From there, professors’ files are sent to the provost, who recommends the professor to the President.

“FAU has one of the strictest Promotion and Tenure (P and T) in the country,” Poole said. “If this process is changed, what could that mean for recruitment of professors to FAU?”

This aligns with the ongoing controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which both Poole and William Trapani referenced. The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees denied New York Times investigative journalist and UNC alum Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure for creating the 1619 Project, which has been the subject of controversy in U.S. education due to its’ focus on slavery and racism.

Nearly 40 members of the UNC School of Journalism and Media have spoken against the ruling by the Board, saying the failure to approve Jones “unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion.”

According to an FAU spokesperson, the Board of Trustees has removed the vote on professor promotion and tenure that was scheduled for June 8. “The university received valuable feedback regarding possible revisions to the tenure review process,” the Board said in an official statement (via a university spokesperson). “As such, more time will be given to carefully consider these recommendations.” The next scheduled meeting for the Board of Trustees is on Sept. 13-14, at the Board of Trustees Retreat.

In late February, the FAU Board of Trustees began discussions surrounding the current promotion and tenure process at the university. The discussions, according to Trapani, surrounded the possibility of the FAU provost reviewing tenure policies of other universities to gauge the amount of input their governing bodies have in the process.

According to FAU Regulation 5.006, tenured status guarantees professors “annual reappointment for the academic year, until voluntary resignation, retirement, removal for just cause or layoff, Board of Governors regulations and applicable collective bargaining agreements.” 

Trapani said that the Steering Committee found three aspects of the proposed rule that were concerning. “The Board was essentially saying that they would like to know more about the faculty, but were never clear what more might include,” he said. Trapani said this would be where professors’ fears of the Board knowing about their political donations or affiliations would come into play. 

In addition, Trapani said that in the proposal, the Board wouldn’t define “a commitment to review the entire slate of candidates as a slate of candidates.” Trapani says that the fear from this rule is that some faculty could be subjected to review because of research contrary to what the Board believes politically.

Finally, Trapani said the Board was never specific in the proposal about what material members may request, or if each candidate would have to supply the same information. 

“The concern the faculty have is if a faculty member does research with a focus on what politicians may not like,” Poole said. “What if they identify as one political party, and then a political office may not agree with their political involvement?” 

Other university boards have members who are appointed by the governor and have rules much like the proposed one FAU has, but Trapani said that there is one major difference.

“Unlike some of our sister institutions, there were no checks and balances against what the board could conceivably want information-wise,” Trapani said. “The way that the regulations were written was overly broad and ill-defined in a way that I think many faculty found concerning.”

Poole suggested the rule change could impact the recruitment and retainment of Black faculty at the university. “Many of the faculty [at FAU] engage in a critical type of research that is concerned with how power is used to oppress and marginalize different groups of people who are historically people of color that have lacked the political power to push back against the injustices in our society,” Poole said. 

“I think faculty of color who may look to FAU as an institution they may want to work at would be less inclined to apply,” Poole said. “Why invest their time and energy into tenure if there’s a possibility they could be denied because their research isn’t in line with what politicians believe?” 

Poole and the United Faculty of Florida have continued to educate the university community on the importance of tenure, including creating a short instructional video explaining tenure and promotion. Both organizations share the same sentiment of the proposed rule being highly problematic.

 “In its current form, [the proposal] has been rushed,” Trapani said.

Joseph Acosta is the Business Manager of the Florida Atlantic University Press. For more inquiries regarding this story or any other story, email him at [email protected] or tweet him @acosta32_jp.