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.

"It was a very difficult period and people were looking for a savior," explains David Hamilton, a professor of cell biology and neuroanatomy. "Everybody wanted Brody to succeed so much that he was allowed to do things without criticism for a period of time, until it became so obvious he was wrong that people couldn't take it anymore."

Was Brody a rogue operator in the University administration, or the person put out front to deflect heat from U of M President Nils Hasselmo? A compelling argument can be made either way. What is certain, however, is that Hasselmo publicly appeared weak-willed and indecisive, giving off contradictory signals as the tenure issue unfolded. During the process, he announced he was retiring in 1997, and his lame duck status made him even more ineffective. The president eventually pronounced himself vigorously opposed to the regents' proposed changes to the tenure code, yet he helped set in motion the chain of events that allowed such a radical document to see the light of day. Whatever affinity the Wallin search committee had felt for Brody, it was Hasselmo who picked the provost from a field of four finalists, and Hasselmo who continually applauded Brody's re-engineering process at AHS.

When Brody asked the regents for changes in governance and tenure, and the regents adroitly asked Brody and Hasselmo for "advice" in return, Hasselmo's vice president, Jim Infante, established a "Faculty-Administration Tenure Working Group" in October; the group would later be viewed by many faculty as an end-run around the established faculty governance process, heightening tensions and mistrust over the issue.

On Nov. 20, 1995, Hasselmo wrote a letter to regent board chairman Reagan, meant to "structure a meaningful dialogue on issues related to tenure." Among the "specific issues which we [the administration] feel should be addressed," Hasselmo embraced Brody's position that tenure "imposes rigidities and lack of flexibility." He suggested setting tenure quotas, and, since "It is assumed that the proportion of faculty who are tenured must decrease," the creation of non-tenure tracks for faculty employment. "Perhaps tenure should be available only under exceptional circumstances in certain areas," Hasselmo wrote.

Other items the letter put on the table included:

* the prospect of determining tenure codes on a departmental basis rather than university-wide (a divide-and-conquer strategy any union organizer would recognize);

* an examination of the length of time before a faculty member earns tenure (presumably longer, if the desire is to end up with fewer tenured faculty);

* and a possible diminution of the protections afforded a tenured faculty member who is accused of misconduct.

With friends like Hasselmo, the tenure system hardly needed enemies.

Perhaps the most blatant sign of Hasselmo's weakness--or collusion--on the tenure issue was the extent to which he allowed Brody to lobby against it at the State Legislature, a primary source of University funds. In December, Reagan had told a faculty governance committee that the Legislature and the governor had both been pressuring the regents about tenure. Not coincidentally, Brody had been a frequent presence at the Capitol, lobbying for $50 million for the AHC--half of it designated to go toward re-engineering--and negotiating the particulars of a merger between the University of Minnesota Hospital and the Fairview Health System.

Announced in mid-November, the Fairview merger raised Brody's stature as a can-do administrator, for it eliminated the biggest source of red ink in the AHC's financial ledger and gave the teaching and research specialists access to more patients. Of course, hundreds of hospital workers are in the process of being laid off, and it wasn't (and still isn't) clear how the University's research and teaching programs would be affected by working in a hospital operating under HMO-style management. But Gov. Arne Carlson, most of the legislators, and the medical business community (known collectively as "stakeholders" in CSC Index/QRTC jargon) clearly thought it was a good trade-off.

Brody was a gifted salesman. "He was one of the main people I dealt with," says Rep. Becky Kelso (DFL-Shakopee), then the chair of the House subcommittee dealing with University funding. "Provost Brody made it clear that the tenure code as it applied to the Academic Health Center was a problem. He said [the AHC] was an incredibly important resource, with a hospital that treated people with life-threatening illness and trained physicians to treat the people of this state. He said it was vital beyond higher education, and that it was in crisis. That was the perspective he brought to us... and certainly it is safe to say he was interested in involving the Legislature in those problems. I think he was right. We agreed there was a need for strong changes." Kelso adds that she believed Hasselmo was aware of what Brody was doing: "I didn't get the impression this was a rogue operation."

In a February 1996 House Education Committee hearing, Kelso specifically cited Brody's comments about the University's restrictive tenure code in the course of grilling Hasselmo on the subject. That same month, the Legislature passed an extraordinary appropriations bill that expressly tied some of the University's funding to progress made on changing the tenure code. The amount of money affected was small--just under $9 million--in relation to the total AHC budget, but the message to faculty and regents was obvious. Inexorably, the issue had become not whether the tenure code would be weakened, but by how much.

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