THE UNIVERSITY OF Minnesota Board of Regents, wracked by controversy about the future of academic tenure at the school, has hired a consultant to guide it through the process of redesigning the school's tenure code. If history is any indication, Dr. Richard Chait, the director of the University of Maryland-based Center for Higher Education Research and Governance, could bring a modicum of civility and rationality to a process so far marked by fear, anger, and mistrust.
Chait, who has authored several books about the dynamics of tenure, is an acknowledged expert on the subject. Most recently, he and his research associate, Cathy Trower, worked on a tenure code revision for the Arizona university system, where an effort similar to Minnesota's is underway.
Faculty and administrators at Arizona State credit Chait with transforming the level of debate at the institution. According to Faculty Senate Chair Daniel Landers, Chait moved the discussion from whether tenure should even exist to how the code could best be modified to ensure that classroom freedoms and performance would be considered just as valuable as quality research. After one appearance by Chait before the Arizona Board of Regents, says Landers, "there wasn't one board member who believed eliminating tenure would not hurt the university. It really pointed out to the regents what could happen if tenure was eliminated."
Arizona Board of Regents Public Affairs Director Tony Seese-Bieda agreed with Landers's assessment.
"Before Chait, the momentum to make significant changes came from the board and there was no consensus at all," Seese-Bieda said. "After Chait, there was much better consensus as far as the language used to describe the changes, the timetable and the workplan." He says Chait helped bring faculty to the table as well.
Although no decisions have yet been made at Arizona, Landers says he's hopeful that "We can put something in place for a post-tenure review that provides more protection for faculty members than exists right now."
But while Arizona's effort to revise its tenure code is similar to the University of Minnesota's in several ways, there are a couple of distinct differences. First, says Landers, "We have a supportive administration. And the Legislature is out of [the review process].... They read about it in the papers." Second, he continued, the discussion of tenure has centered on improving the quality of instruction, not on increasing the administration's fiscal flexibility--an express goal in Minnesota, and a key source of faculty fears.
The University of Minnesota debate has been plagued by months of acrimony, recently detailed in a May 17 cover story in the Chronicle of Higher Education. UM President Nils Hasselmo has made no secret of the fact that he wants to rewrite the tenure code largely because he and the regents anticipate a decline in state funding. That decline, Hasselmo told an April 18 University Senate meeting, means that the administration needs greater financial leeway to make massive budget cuts that tenure, with its lifetime employment proviso, simply does not afford.
Faculty-administration relations have deteriorated so badly that neither side can make a move without engendering criticism and suspicion. Even the move on the part of the regents to hire Chait triggered a flurry of faculty criticism.
The Board of Regents was most interested "in getting a consultant who would support the regents," Faculty Consultative Committee Chairman Carl Adams said in early April when the board announced its intention to seek an outside viewpoint. Of course, Adams himself, who heads up the committee charged with representing the faculty's interests to the administration, has faced criticism from a growing number of faculty members who believe that he secretly sides with the administration on tenure matters. And many faculty members simply don't believe the administration's assurances that the tenure code will not be mothballed.
This spring state legislators--many of whom clearly believe the University incapable of solving its budgetary problems by itself--took the apparently unprecedented step of tying $8.6 million worth of badly needed restructuring funds for the school's Academic Health Center to tenure reform, thus adding an element of frenzied urgency to the already ugly situation. As the Chronicle of Higher Education piece illustrated, the rest of academia is now waiting to see how the University, whose reputation as one of the country's premier research facilities is on the line, will resolve the matter.