Money, Tenure, and the Brave New U

Is the University of Minnesota trying to carve up the academic tenure system under cover of saving its beleaguered medical complex?

The idea of reforming higher education to make it run more like a business--"leaner and meaner," more responsive to market forces--is a prominent theme of the '90s. It's part of the ethos of the University of Minnesota's U2000 plan. Now, as the downsizing of American institutions proceeds in earnest, a move to target higher education tenure policies is gaining steam at universities and in state legislatures all over the nation once again. And the U may prove to be in the forefront of the movement.

"All sorts of boards and legislatures are jumping in and mandating review" of academic policies, according to Cathy Trower, a research associate at the Center for Higher Education Governance and Learning at the University of Maryland. Trower and the center's director, Prof. Richard Chait, have spent years researching tenure at the independently funded center, and have authored several books on the subject. "It's pretty amazing," she says. "This isn't exclusive to Minnesota. In fact, Minnesota is kind of behind the curve."

At least two dozen state legislatures, most recently in Arizona, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia, have debated the topic of professorial workloads and proposed revising the tenure system--the policy that ensures academic freedom by guaranteeing professors economic security--in an effort to get more bang for the education buck, Trower said. Usually, the politicians, after an initial period of rhetorical swagger about deadbeat academics teaching fewer and fewer classes, back away from abolishing the tenure system altogether and leave the actual changes to the administrators. But here in Minnesota, the Legislature and Governor Arne Carlson have gone the rest of the country one step further by tying $8.6 million of badly needed funding for the school's Academic Health Center--the area of study that encompasses all health care disciplines--to rewriting the tenure code.

The legislative edict, handed down as part of a funding package signed by Carlson last week, has spawned a growing miasma of fear, anger, and mistrust on the Twin Cities campus, and helped to guarantee that the University will be one of the first major institutions to substantially revise its tenure system. In the process, warns Trower, they are likely to risk serious damage to the U's reputation as one of the country's premier research facilities.

If Minnesota abolishes or substantially weakens its tenure code and no other state does likewise, she claims, no researcher--much less an outstanding one--will want to work there: "I mean, why go there when you can go somewhere that has a strong tenure system?"

University administration had made revising the tenure code a high priority even before the Legislature stepped in. Although the bill that Carlson signed last week directed the school to alter the tenure code for only its clinical faculty--doctors, nurses, and the like--the administration has made it clear that the code will be revised across the board. Indeed, the matter has been on the table in some form since September, according to the minutes of several academic committee meetings, and was the subject of a November 20 letter from University President Nils Hasselmo to Board of Regents Chairman Thomas R. Reagan.

In that letter, Hasselmo outlined a variety of issues that he said must be addressed in any meaningful revision of the tenure code, including:

§ awarding tenure on a proportional scale; possibly increasing the length of the probationary period before tenure is granted, currently six years, to as many as nine years;

§ reducing the number of tenured positions, possibly by creating more "non-tenure track" openings;

§ redesigning the existing salary structure, perhaps replacing it with what Hasselmo refers to as a "more responsible reward system."

In outlining why he sought to rewrite the tenure policy, Hasselmo cited a need for greater financial "flexibility and efficiency" in the University's activities. Essentially, he wrote, it's a matter of expenses: The University needs to be able to restructure its fixed costs, and the biggest one--some 75 percent of the operating and maintenance budget, according to a March 20 brief issued by the University Relations office--is employee compensation.

Yet the University has actually been cutting the number of tenured faculty for several years, according to documents provided by the University's Human Resources office. Of the University's 5,587 full-time academic employees, 2,578, or 46 percent, were tenured as of April 1995--a reduction of 2.5 percent from the April 1992 figure of 2,642. Moreover, with no substantial pay increase in recent memory for faculty members, compensation is no greater now than at the beginning of the decade. Still, neither Hasselmo nor Reagan has offered any data to bolster the claim that the U needs fiscal flexibility--except in the case of the ailing Academic Health Center.

The health center, and particularly the medical school, has experienced a decline in revenues from clinical sources due to increased competition from managed-care companies and HMOs. The med school itself is facing a deficit on the order of $8 million, Health Sciences Provost William Brody told a group of faculty members recently, and the rest of the schools within the center are struggling to maintain the level of funding to which they have become accustomed.

"The big issue," Brody said at the time, "is the $30 to $50 million the med school receives in clinical revenue that comes back to support the University." That revenue, he added, is drying up, and the school can no longer count on it. The solution? Reduce the number of tenured faculty within the center, thereby slashing the biggest fixed cost--compensation.

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