Academic culture encourages lawsuits

In its battle against a constant onslaught of litigation, the University is not alone.
More than 230 cases against the University sit on the general counsel’s docket at any given time and 70 percent of these are employment related. They reflect a pattern of burgeoning legal backlash against large employers across the nation.
The University is the third-largest employer in Minnesota, falling behind the state and federal governments; it edges out such heavy hitters as Dayton Hudson Corp. and 3M.
And as large institutions grow, so do their legal problems.
The University: A special case
Officials say more broadly defined avenues for disgruntled employees to travel, an abundance of work-starved plaintiffs’ lawyers and a greater awareness among employees of their rights, have fueled the expanding litigation from Hennepin County District Court to Washington, D.C.
But the University faces a set of human resource challenges unlike those of private-sector corporations and similarly large government institutions.
When former University President Nils Hasselmo recognized the need for a more tightly knit human resources structure at the University in 1995, he enlisted the expertise of Charles Denny.
Denny, a retired CEO of a local manufacturing company, accepted Hasselmo’s challenge and formed the Working Group on Human Resources. Since October 1996, University officials have implemented many of the recommendations such as better employee access to benefits and rights information and stronger collaboration between department managers.
“The University is a very special institution with its own culture and practices, and cannot be compared one for one with industry or government institutions,” Denny said. “We came to understand that the tools we have used in industry management are simply not applicable here.”
Denny said no amount of restructuring will, or should, centralize the University’s policies too much. The nonhierarchical structure of the University’s administrative body and the individualistic nature of its employees do not allow rigid uniformity.
“That’s not to say the University is an anarchy,” Denny said. “But there is more slack for everyone to branch off in their own direction.”
Therein, Denny said, lie the problems that can create employment litigation.
“But that’s part of what you need to provide the openness to facilitate the pursuit of knowledge,” he said. “That’s just how it works.”
A small city
More than 30,700 employees and 49,000 students make the University a community similar to a small city. With a central administration, police force, building contracts and maintenance employees, the University operates on a $1.8 billion annual budget most smaller city governments would envy.
For example, the city of Rochester, Minn., operates on a budget of little more than $88 million. But with its 80,000 permanent residents and a major hospital, the city shares demographic similarities with the University.
Rochester City Attorney Terry Adkins said only two cases involving employment issues sit in his office; he doesn’t foresee either one advancing to litigation stages.
“Employment issues have increased dramatically, yes,” Adkins said. “Every day, we have people in our office asking, What do we do now?’ But that’s good. It means we’re getting them involved.”
Adkins said when employment issues with city workers arise they are usually handled through unions.
But just as the axiom says city hall can’t be fought, it could also mention that the University can.
Money, said Denny, could be the reason.
“The University’s money comes from a state treasury,” Denny said. “This is a hyper-sensitive environment where people might feel more secure in taking on their employer.”

The University is not alone
Other large, decentralized Universities like Minnesota experience similar problems with backlogged case dockets. Indiana University, Ohio State University, the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan each have dockets boasting more than 200 cases — most of which are also employment related.
Ohio State University’s numbers closely mirror those of Minnesota. Ohio State sees an influx of 100 or more cases per year from its five-campus system, which boasts 30,000 employees and 55,000 students.
Jon Biancamano, lead attorney for Ohio State, said universities are at a disadvantage because they reside in the public eye.
“Employees in the public sector have a much broader range of due process,” Biancamano said. “It is much more difficult to discipline an employee in a more legalistic process.”
Biancamano, who practiced law in the private sector before going to Ohio State, said he believes the level of managerial competence is the same, if not higher, at universities.
Because of that, he said, employees are more likely to be aware of their constitutional rights.
“Sometimes, losing a certain amount of efficiency in the process is the cost of democracy,” he said.
University head attorney Mark Rotenberg said he understands that while private industry is able to keep billowing litigation numbers under its hat, the University gets more attention for its role as a major employer.
“Large companies have a sizable litigation document, too,” Rotenberg said. “But the media focuses on us. The University has a greater significance to more people in Minnesota than any other single institution.”
Private industry’s advantage
Biancamano suspects private industry’s ability to operate in secret allows them to more discreetly handle employee complaints.
“A corporation might fire, lay off or find a corner for someone who is having problems with how they are being treated,” Biancamano said. “Universities simply can’t do that.”
Mary Auvin, a 3M representative, said while employment litigation has also increased in the private sector, the increase has been less significant.
“To put it into perspective,” Auvin said, “we only have a handful of cases compared to (the University).”
According to an August 1997 report, 3M is the seventh-largest employer in the state, employing 19,926 people.
Auvin cited teamwork as the number one reason why employees don’t find reason to sue their employer.
“Every project here is done in teams and between teams,” Auvin said. “It’s a real consensus-building kind of feeling. It’s part of our culture, with layers of teams working for a common purpose. Everybody seems to know what everybody’s up to.”
Denny said while the formula works for private industry, it would not fly in the University setting.
“There is a whole company of forces that conspire to make it difficult for University employees to work as a team,” Denny said. “The word manage’ is almost an anathema.”
— Staff Reporter Andrew Tellijohn contributed to this report.