Destroying the University to Save the University

A long and rancorous effort to do away with tenure and run itself more like a business has set the University of Minnesota back for years to come.

On April 16, 1996, the Minnesota Daily carried two front-page stories that had a lot to say about the changing priorities of the University of Minnesota. On the right side of the page, an article and photo reported on the installation of Coca-Cola vending machines at the student union, the first tangible sign of a 10-year, $28 million contract ensuring that Coke's brand of sugar waters would be virtually the only ones available to patrons on University property. The second story concerned three letters of anguished protest sent to the University's Board of Regents by faculty members from the School of Nursing, the School of Public Health, and the School of Dentistry. Each of the letters claimed that the administrators and corporate consultants who were "re-engineering" the seven schools that comprise the University's Academic Health Center had excluded them from the process in a secretive and autocratic manner.

Of the two news items, the Coke machines were an easier concept to grasp--they represented the cut-and-dried exchange of hard cash for a captive market. By comparison, faculty complaints over bureaucratic restructuring were a subtler matter. Yet what was happening--and, many say, continues to happen--at the Academic Health Center was far more insidious to the core principles and national reputation of the University than the institution's role as a well-paid pawn in the cola wars. Now, nearly a year later, it is clear that the faculty letters of protest were but one incident in a continuum of events that has made the U notorious across the country for recklessly allowing business interests to interfere with basic tenets of academic freedom.

Nine months before the letters were written, on July 19, 1995, nearly 100 upper-level faculty, administrators, and local business and political figures began a two-day "leadership retreat" to consider how to restructure the Academic Health Center and what impact that might have on the University's future. Given that the AHC comprised more than a third of the University's $1.7 billion budget at the time, and generated the bulk of its research dollars, the topic was a matter of no small importance. The featured speaker that first day was an animated, somewhat rumpled management consultant named James Champy, who was glowingly introduced by new AHC Provost William Brody as the co-author of the New York Times best-seller Reengineering the Corporation.

In the course of his talk, Champy cited some of the corporations his consulting firm, CSC Index, had helped to re-engineer, including Taco Bell, the Hallmark greeting card company, and an unnamed major insurance company. Re-engineering, he said, was "not pure downsizing, although you learn how to do dramatically more with dramatically less, and that might suggest fewer people operating in certain parts of the organization." Within the first 15 minutes, the subject of faculty tenure was raised. Champy called it a "constraint" comparable to the trade unions of Europe. And by accepting those constraints, he went on, managers became "resigned too quickly to the way things have to be." Re-engineering, conversely, was about swift and radical change, about "starting out with a blank sheet of paper."

And how would such massive change be implemented? "We live in debate; faculties [especially] live in debate," Champy told University officials. "But you may have to exercise powers and say sometimes, 'The debate is over. This is the way we are going to be.'" Later, he added that "visions are not built by groups, not many more than three to six people... It is less true in a University, but people in organizations want to be told what to do. There is a thirst for leadership, for top-down direction." The University would eventually pay Champy and CSC Index $2.2 million to put his philosophy into practice at AHC.

On Sept. 5, 1996--more than a year after Champy's speech and less than five months after the faculty letters of protest--the University's Board of Regents met at the branch campus in Morris, Minnesota, and unveiled their proposed changes to the faculty tenure code. The regents' proposal was written in collaboration with Martin Michaelson, a Washington D.C. lawyer who had recently done legal work on re-engineering at the AHC. Their revised tenure code would have made it easier for the regents to lay off faculty members when programs at the University were being restructured. It would have allowed faculty salaries to be cut not only for reasons of gross misconduct or extreme fiscal emergency, but for unspecified "compelling reason[s]" as well. And it would have enabled faculty members to be disciplined for, among other things, not demonstrating "a proper attitude of industry and cooperation."

According to a September letter from the American Association of University Professors, the regents' proposal violates the AAUP's 57-year-old Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom Tenure on 15 different counts. In arbitrary and inflammatory language, the regents' proposals sought to erode the two essential protections traditionally afforded by tenure: a secure job and a stable salary. To the thousands of unemployed and underemployed Minnesotans ground up in the global economy, the safeguards could seem like luxurious privileges, and some regents, particularly board chairman Tom Reagan, played on that potential resentment by implying that it was time the professors joined the real world--meaning the business world. But the business of a university is pursuing inquiry and communicating knowledge, and by serving as a buffer against political pressure, tenure has long been deemed vital to that project--protecting unpopular political views and, at times, the prerogatives of scientific researchers. Without tenure, for instance, research that ran counter to such powerful interests as alcohol and tobacco companies would be almost unthinkable.

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