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.

Kinley Brauer, who chairs the history department, acknowledges that he has lost two prized faculty members already, one to Harvard and the other to Yale. One specifically cited the tenure issue as a motivation for leaving. "There is no question in my mind that this has hurt the U," says Brauer. "We would be losing more than we are now probably, except that we have a relatively older faculty. And it's not only the faculty. We have had a drop both in the number of graduate students who want to come here and in the quality of our graduate student candidates."

Once faculty members leave, the University's reputation makes it hard to fill their positions with quality personnel. "We have eight searches currently going on," said a faculty member from the College of Nursing back in December. "It has gotten to the point where the people we want aren't going to come here, and in our desperation we'll start to take whatever we can get. Lately we have had to hire very junior people."

Along with tenure and re-engineering, relatively low wages and a higher than average workload are disincentives for recruiting and retaining a high-caliber faculty. Due in large measure to legislative penury, faculty salaries at Minnesota are near the bottom of the nation's 34 major research institutions, averaging $78,000, including benefits, and have either been frozen or raised by minimal amounts (2 or 3 percent) in each of the past three years. By contrast, Hasselmo's salary jumped from $152,300 in 1993 to $178,191 in 1995, while Mario Bognano, the associate to the president, has seen his salary raised by $20,000, to $130,000, over the same two-year period. Brody was paid $290,000; Cerra slightly less. Overall, the number of top administrative positions--president, chancellors, vice presidents, and associate vice presidents--more than doubled. The amount paid by the University to consultants has also risen sharply, averaging more than $55 million annually over the past three years.

How can the University afford these expenditures? One way is by not hiring any new faculty. As was the case at most major universities, enormous numbers of faculty members were hired at Minnesota during the '60s and early '70s, when the money was plentiful. Now those professors are retiring and not being replaced. The U of M has the lowest ratio of faculty per student of any school in the Big Ten.

"When the regents used to talk about all this 'deadwood' among tenured faculty that we had to get rid of, you just had to laugh," says Paula Rabinowitz, an English professor at the U. "Our peer institutions--Washington, Texas, Michigan, Berkeley--have English departments between 80 and 100 faculty for the level of work we do, which includes about 150 to 200 graduate students and 500 to 1,000 majors. But my department has 38 faculty. That's the size of Kansas State and the University of Nevada at Reno, neither of which have Ph.D. programs.

"And it's not just my department. The physics department is working with 25 percent less faculty than most major physics departments in the country. So is the math department; so is the history department. We are talking about the core fields of any major research university."

Of those faculty members who do remain at Minnesota, fully 50 percent are 55 or older and will be retiring within the next decade. Other universities across the country also face the prospect of massive retirements from faculty hired in the '60s and '70s, creating a very competitive recruiting atmosphere for the best and the brightest teaching minds at the beginning of the 21st century.

Given the baggage of botched tenure reform, flat wages, and a high workload, how will the University of Minnesota compete for these teachers, who will train the majority of our local doctors and accountants and businesspeople? That is a question administrators, legislators, and citizens of this state have to answer, and quickly-- unless we want to start issuing U of M diplomas from those vending machines. CP

News Interns Todd Renschler and Margaret Delehanty contributed research to this story.

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