A photo of Keeny Hall at Louisiana Tech University from September 2016. (Creative Commons license)
A new addition to the staff at the Louisiana Board of Regents has turned the heads of some professors at state colleges. Dr. Tristan Denley, deputy commissioner of academic affairs and innovation, comes from the University of Georgia System where he helped institute a controversial performance review policy for tenured academics.
Professors with tenure typically enjoy solid job security, but critics of Denley’s efforts in Georgia say the reviews make it difficult to attract and retain faculty. The new policy allows little to no input from faculty when a tenured professor is being removed.
A spokesperson for the Louisiana Board of Regents said Tenley’s current role has no effect on the tenure process.
Board of Regents chairman Blake Davis described Denley as “a rock star innovator and tremendous recruit for the team at Regents,” but professors who spoke with the Illuminator aren’t sold on Denley yet.
Leslie Bary said she’s concerned about policies “called innovation but that are really destruction.” She teaches Spanish and Latin America studies at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. She’s also president of the American Association of University Professors chapter in Louisiana.
“It’s unclear what exactly (the Board of Regents’ interest) was in hiring this guy,” Bary said.
A spokesperson for the Board of Regents declined the Illuminator’s request to interview Denley.
Denley’s new role doesn’t give him any say on the hiring of faculty or tenure policies. The Board of Regents doesn’t make those decisions either, deferring instead to the state college systems it oversees – LSU, Southern, the University of Louisiana and the Louisiana Community and Technical College systems.
Denley has been described as “the architect of the death of tenure.” No other college system in the country has a tenure review policy like what Georgia put in place. It requires a post-tenure review for professors every five years. If a professor doesn’t receive high marks, they could be required to follow a performance improvement plan. Termination is an option if the professor doesn’t show improvement.
Matt Boedy, president of the American Association of University Professors chapter in Georgia, has not been a fan of Denley’s role in Georgia higher education.
“He played a role in those changes happening so fast, definitely,” Boedy said.
Boedy said he will hold an online meeting Saturday with the members of the AAUP Louisiana chapter to talk about Denley’s hire and his role in Georgia higher education.
Meg Casper Sunstrom, spokesperson for the Board of Regents, said Denley’s role has more to do with advancing student success in Louisiana.
“Regents is committed to talent development, math reform, expanding STEM, and getting more students to start college in high school. Those are our priorities,” Sunstrom said. “Moving this agenda (forward) requires that we support our faculty and advance good policy. Dr. Denley is critical in advancing that work.“
Robert Mann, a tenured professor with LSU’S Manship School of Mass Communication, said Denley’s appointment to the Louisiana college board is “troubling, given what we know of his history in Georgia.”
Mann has a reputation for being a harsh critic of LSU leadership on social media. His targets have included the university’s mishandling of on-campus sexual assault allegations and the woeful conditions at Middleton Library, where typical rainstorms flood its collections.
“I don’t think that a lot of people are panicking about (the hire) right now because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of sentiment for that,” Mann said, but the concern is if the political mood around tenure shifts around the state in the future.
For example, if a more conservative Republican takes office as governor down the road, “you may start seeing some of the kind of stuff (in Louisiana) that we’ve seen in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia – where the University of Virginia system has been politicized by the attorney general there,” Mann said.
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Last month, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry – a likely candidate for governor next year – angered by Mann’s tweet calling his assistant a “flunky,” demanded that the university’s president do something to punish the professor.
“What’s going to be coming down the pike in a couple of years – and are we prepared for it?” Mann said.
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