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.

Carolyn Williams, an associate professor in the University's school of public health, presented regent board chairman Reagan with copies of the Business Week articles in April of 1996. If Reagan even bothered to read them, it didn't affect his and the other board members' decision to renew their contract with CSC Index for $1.7 million.

The regents had larger priorities. With the Legislature in their corner and even Hasselmo apparently willing to make sharp compromises up front in tenure negotiations, board members envisioned an unprecedented (to their experience) degree of flexibility in faculty personnel management, including:

* layoff provisions if the regents decided to close a school or department at the U;

* stronger and faster disciplinary authority over misconduct;

* the ability to evaluate already tenured faculty in terms of productivity and performance;

* the balkanization of the University-wide tenure code into sets of rules that varied by department or school unit.

In other words, the regents saw the possibility of operating the University in almost the same way as a for-profit business.

But after the polarizing events of February 1996--when the Legislature tied appropriations to tenure and the QRTC released its plan for restructuring the Academic Health Center--the faculty's trust level dropped as their resolve stiffened. The working group on tenure that Hasselmo and his vice president Infante had put together in response to the regents' request for advice back in September 1995 had staged a series of public forums on tenure over the winter, and were working with a group of lawyers to put together their own proposed changes in the code.

That one of those lawyers was Martin Michaelson of the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson, who had been working on tenure issues and other legal matters for Brody over in the AHC, was just one of the reasons why faculty members revolted against the working group. Rightly or wrongly, the group was perceived by many faculty as being too close to the regents and the University administration. And on purely procedural grounds, the faculty constitution specifically designates three separate committees to work through any faculty consideration of changes in tenure. The working group was seen as an attempt to bulldoze that process.

By a nearly unanimous vote at their April 18 senate meeting, the faculty scrapped the working group and agreed to put together its own tenure proposal by going through the constitutionally appropriate subcommittees. The real task was hammering out a consensus plan and then getting it passed through the committees in two months so that it would be ready for consideration when the regents met in June. Not only did the faculty committees meet their deadline; they came up with proposed changes in the code that were very Minnesotan in their self-effacement. Under their proposal, the U of M would become one of a minority (albeit a growing one) of universities to engage in post-tenure reviews of faculty performance, and even be given the authority to cut faculty salaries in some instances. The faculty also suggested changes in the code that would lengthen the probationary period before tenure was granted.

The regents accepted these generous proposals with enthusiasm, but it still wasn't enough for them. They remained determined to gain layoff authority over tenured faculty when a college or department is re-engineered out of existence. They also held out for a more streamlined judicial appeals process to allow for faster discipline of tenured faculty accused of misconduct. So they did not act on the faculty proposal, further straining relations with faculty leaders who had devoted the past two months to getting their plan in on time. At this point, Hasselmo threw his lot in with the faculty, and more or less denied the regents access to the materials in his office.

As far as the regents were concerned, they weren't getting the information they needed out of Hasselmo anyway. What Keffeler in particular was after was some kind of comparative data that would indicate where the University stood in relation to its peers on tenure issues. To that end, the board hired its own consultant, Dr. Richard Chait of the University of Maryland, a nationally recognized authority on tenure codes. But according to Chait's chief assistant, Kathy Trower, who worked alongside Chait in Minnesota on behalf of the regents, what the board wanted--apples-to-apples comparisons of tenure issues among universities--was much more complex than it might seem. Tenure codes are idiosyncratic; while the basic principles and goals may be the same, the context is different. Each institution structures and phrases its codes in a manner meant to resolve the specific disputes over academic freedom and bureaucratic control that have arisen on that campus. Second, what's written in a code often isn't the same as what is practiced as policy. The harsher aspects of a written tenure code are almost never implemented because most boards of regents intuitively realize that it makes no political or educational sense to pick a fight with your faculty: The less enlightened will resent it and plot against you; the best and the brightest will often simply go somewhere else.

For some reason, the regents at the U of M did not grasp these simple facts. The chain of events that was allowed to occur between the time when the faculty submitted its tenure proposal in June and the regents unveiled theirs in September seems in retrospect to be equal parts ignorance and arrogance. Chait reported that he was happy to interpret the faculty's proposal for tenure and provide other guidance on the issue, but that he did not feel comfortable writing a legal document like a proposed tenure code. The regents then turned to the University's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg. But out of loyalty to Hasselmo, Rotenberg chose not to get involved with writing the regents' tenure proposal. Of all people, Rotenberg turned to Martin Michaelson from Hogan & Hartson, the lawyer whose involvement in the AHC re-engineering process and Hasselmo's working group already made him something of an iconic foe of the faculty on tenure issues. At a regents' retreat in August, Michaelson solicited the individual views of all the board members present (everyone but Keffeler and Wendell Anderson), researched some of the tenure codes of comparable universities, and sought to reconcile the two, in some cases by incorporating the language of other codes.

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