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?

But tenure, with its lifetime-employment provision, extends beyond the academic health center. Many of the faculty at the Twin Cities campus are suspicious of the administration's zeal to rewrite the tenure code in the name of saving the academic health center; they resent the prospect of being sacrificed on the altar of fiscal flexibility. And the bottom line is that many faculty members at the University just don't believe Hasselmo or the regents when the administrators claim they don't want to abolish tenure, just reform it.

"Mistrust is the name of what's going on within the University," says Anne Goldman, a professor of biostatistics in the School of Public Health. "It's just coming to a head now." A March 14 faculty forum featured nearly 85 teachers publicly howling at the administration. Many of those present said they feared their job security would be sacrificed to save the med school.

Those fears had seemed confirmed only a few days earlier, when a March 10 Washington Post editorial lauded Hasselmo as a visionary in the fight to reform tenure. The editorial, which appeared to draw heavily on Hasselmo's letter to Reagan, praised the president's efforts "to reduce the number of tenured faculty and possibly, if necessary, lower their salaries." Across the country, academics understandably read the Post editorial as a call for pay cuts and layoffs within their ranks. On the Twin Cities campus, faculty members assumed that the decision on the tenure code had already been made, despite Hasselmo's repeated assertions that nothing would be done without extensive faculty input.

By all appearances, Hasselmo--who, publicly at least, had consistently preached a gospel of academic freedom at any cost--was unprepared for the fallout from the Post piece and the damage to his standing with faculty. He tried to control matters by rebutting the editorial. In a March 15 letter to the Post's editors, Hasselmo wrote that a "great deal of misinformation about the University of Minnesota's review of its tenure code has been distributed" and that he wanted to "set the record straight."

The letter was cosigned by Prof. Carl Adams, in his capacity as chairman of the Faculty Consultative Committee--the group charged with protecting the faculty's interests in matters of university administration. Unfortunately, Adams had neglected to check with the rest of the committee before he signed on. Many faculty committee members interpreted the action to mean that Adams agreed with Hasselmo and the regents rather than with them. The debate that emerged over a proposed response to Hasselmo's letter to the Post engendered some nasty words for Adams--and later, at least one call for his resignation.

The faculty aren't the only ones who don't trust Hasselmo. When the University requested $25 million to fund the health center's restructuring, the Legislature balked, touching off a series of meetings between administrators--including Hasselmo himself--and legislators. Ultimately, the Legislature granted the University only $8.6 million of its original request--and that only if the school succeeds in redefining its tenure code.

"I made it abundantly clear that tenure is an integral part of the faculty system at the University of Minnesota and will so remain," Hasselmo said. "I'd prefer not to have the language."

But key legislators, explaining the bill's wording, said they don't trust Hasselmo and the regents to change anything without some financial incentive.

"I'm not interested in investing the taxpayers' money in an institution that can't deal with [its] problems," Rep. Becky Kelso (DFL-Shakopee), chairwoman of the House Education Committee's University of Minnesota Finance Division, told a Minnesota Daily reporter.

Other legislators were even more blunt.

"The most efficient way to encourage transformation at the U of M is to attempt to change the culture through incentive funding," said Rep. Anthony Kinkel (DFL-Park Rapids), who chairs the House's Higher Education Finance Division. "I have the belief that every great change in higher education has been externally motivated."

Words such as these have experts like Trower convinced the University could, in the haste to streamline its operation, be well on the way to vastly decreasing its standing in the world of academe as a result.

"Somebody's got to take the lead" with tenure reform, she says. "I just wouldn't want to be the one to do it."

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