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.

With Cerra officially in charge as provost, reports from Phase II of the QRTC re-engineering process were released in the summer of 1996. Among the more galling parts of the reports for faculty members were a series of pages under the heading "How Our Culture Must Change," which offered numerous examples of "Old AHC" attitudes that needed molding along "New AHC" lines. By the lights of "Old AHC," for instance, "Once one is tenured, they are employed for life." The arrow then pointed to the "New AHC" recommendation for cultural thinking: "We don't guarantee employment for anyone."

Along with the suggested reformation of faculty attitudes, the Phase II reports made specific recommendations as to bureaucratic realignment at the AHC. Not surprisingly, the recommendation of the research design team was that the AHC "appoint a Vice Provost for Research to facilitate the overall process." Brody, Cerra, and many participants in the QRTC process have made no secret of the fact that one of the primary "strategic goals" of the AHC is to partner up with private businesses in order to generate more revenue for the AHC.

"As with any academic health center, most of our research dollars come from the National Institutes of Health. The grant process is enormously competitive and yet some of us are still extraordinarily successful at getting a lot of that money," says Carolyn Williams, a professor in the school of public health. "This re-engineering seems to be taking authority away from the deans and department heads and investing it into administrators. What troubles me is, do I have to first submit my grant proposals to the AHC before I send it to NIH? Because that is a violation of academic freedom. The current project I have now is on preventing adolescent alcohol abuse. Some administrators thought it was a long shot [for funding]; if they had the right to tell me what to do, it wouldn't have gotten done."

According to Cerra, "There are two parts to this. One is, who decides what kind of research is to be done--that is totally up to the faculty. Then there is grants management--that is an infrastructure question. Yes, we want to see how to make it customer-service oriented, so faculty and [a corporate] sponsor can get together. But the control for that resides in the faculty."

But it was "faculty" who put together the QRTC reports, and theoretically drove the re-engineering process in the first place. Those faculty members who don't trust Cerra point out that the structural framework of re-engineering is going forward. The provost has usurped most of the financial authority once held by the deans. And a new vice provost for research has been appointed by Cerra: He is Leo Furcht, the person who headed up the entire QRTC process under Brody. During his brief phone interview, Brody himself said that Cerra was the person who now had to implement the changes that Brody had set in motion. "And I understand that he is moving ahead with that very nicely," Brody said.

Efforts to change the tenure code and force a restructuring of the Academic Health Center have consistently been defended as tough but proper business decisions to cope with the intractable financial realities facing the University. But an equally compelling argument can be made that these actions have alienated people most responsible for creating and maintaining the University's economic health--quality faculty members.

In the 1994-95 financial year, faculty at the University of Minnesota were paid a total of $271 million, of which $191 million came from state appropriations. In return for this investment, the faculty generated $350 million in external research money. Patents and other products generated by faculty research are responsible for thousands of jobs throughout the state. Student tuition is obviously paid in exchange for the promise of a quality education from a distinguished faculty. Without that top-notch faculty, the University's financial position is in jeopardy.

Re-engineering and the regents' tenure proposal made it increasingly difficult for the University to hold on to its star faculty, let alone recruit other young candidates to replenish an aging work force. The huge amount of negative nationwide publicity after the regents unveiled their proposal in Morris not only gave faculty a reason to consider leaving the U, but encouraged other universities to redouble their efforts to steal them away. The number of tenured faculty who report they have been approached with viable proposals from other schools--registered as "retention" offers--is four times the annual average. "Certainly the perception is that we are all 'raidable'," says David Hamilton, a professor of cell biology. "And many of those people are at the very least thinking about leaving. I just got back from a national meeting where I spent most of my time being cornered by people asking about faculty at Minnesota who have their CVs [resumes] out."

Because of the recent scandals, along with other troubles predating Brody's arrival, the massive turnover in AHC isn't entirely a reflection of the forces he set in motion. But other departments throughout the University report a great deal of concern about departing faculty. According to Ed Fogelman, chair of the political science department, "Last year there were four retention offers out of my college, liberal arts; this year there are 18. And in this situation, the people most likely to get recruited away are the best ones."

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