House version of bill ties funds to tenure reform

After weighing issues concerning academic freedom, autonomy and money, state legislators relaxed conditions placed on funding for the Academic Health Center.
A bill that passed the House Education Committee on Thursday would devote about $4.5 million to improve the health care curriculum and technology in the center. But, to get the funds, the University must change its tenure policies.
The revised bill requires that the Board of Regents, not the state finance commissioner, approve tenure policy changes.
On Tuesday, members of The University of Minnesota Finance Division of the House Education Committee recommended the same amount of money for the center. But lawmakers said the University could get the funds only after it revised tenure policies for clinical faculty at the center. The school also must show progress in the development of the Rural Health School at the University’s Duluth campus.
Jim Infante, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, said the University is already involved in changing tenure policies. In December, the regents started the process, and they are scheduled to finish by May.
But some representatives weren’t sure significant change could happen quickly enough.
“The pace of change has to increase,” said Rep. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins. “In the past the University has been able to take its time.”
Some University staff members are concerned that weakening the tenure codes would decrease academic freedom. Craig Swan, professor of economics, said several good professors joined his department when their academic freedom was threatened at other universities.
“The guarantee of academic freedom as secured by tenure plays a crucial role in recruiting and retaining the best faculty,” Swan said.
Rep. Becky Kelso, DFL-Shakopee, said the University needs more flexibility to deal with cuts in funding. Current policies don’t let the University lay off tenured faculty members, even if their department no longer exists.
“The University of Minnesota has tremendous financial problems,” Kelso said. “And I wouldn’t be talking about this slight change in tenure if I thought they had the ability to deal with their financial problems.”
The $4.5 million approved by the committee tops the $3.3 million passed by the Senate’s education committee, but it falls short of the $14.5 million the University requested, and the $15 million Gov. Arne Carlson recommended.
Infante said the University might make up the difference by reallocating money that was destined for other places.
Next, the bill will be heard by the House’s Ways and Means Committee. With its approval, the legislation will make its way to the floor of the House.