Regent changes her position on tenure

Kelly Wittman

Calling the current management of tenure discussions a “sorry process,” Regent Jean Keffeler sent two letters to fellow regents Tuesday encouraging them to seriously consider withdrawing the suggested tenure code revisions that have been hotly contested by faculty.
The letters represent a reversal in position for Keffeler, who is seen by many faculty members as a leader in the push for tenure reform. Although the entire Board of Regents approved the resolution to review the current faculty tenure code last December, it has been the Faculty, Staff and Student Affairs Committee, which Keffeler chairs, that has been in charge of the discussion.
Keffeler said in one letter that poor management of the tenure review process combined with the sensitivity of the tenure issue has led to wrong and harmful impressions. The regents held a private meeting Thursday to discuss issues related to tenure, two days after she sent the letter.
Keffeler told The Minnesota Daily she did not wish to comment further about the tenure issue and said her letter explains her position.
The current tenure controversy escalated in September, when regents asked faculty members to consider changes to the tenure code that are more stringent than revisions the Faculty Senate tenure committee had proposed in June. Regent suggestions included a provision to make layoffs of tenured faculty easier in downsizing situations and allowing for the salary reduction or dismissal of professors who failed to show “a proper attitude of industry and cooperation.”
Throughout the debate Keffeler has said that a review of the tenure code was needed to rectify the rigidity and ambiguity of the code. She has also said that Faculty Senate recommendations presented to regents last June would be improvements to the tenure code.
Faculty responded to the suggestions by spearheading a unionization drive and successfully obtaining a cease-and-desist order against the University. The order bars all changes in conditions or terms of employment until a union election is held.
Faculty animosity surrounding the tenure proposal comes from the hostile tone with which the review was undertaken, said Ellen Berscheid, a regents professor and active participant in the tenure debate. There have been other reviews of the tenure code at the University, she said, and they have gone forward in a collegial atmosphere. Hostile statements by members of the board have led to the faculty’s grave concerns, she said.
The board’s statements that they want open communication about tenure just don’t ring true, Berscheid said. In June, when newly elected Faculty Consultative Committee chairwoman Virginia Gray wanted to meet with regents about the tenure issue, the regents flatly refused, she said.
Faculty members have also exclusively criticized Keffeler for trying to interfere in the faculty-led tenure revision process. Last May the committee passed a resolution saying that Keffeler’s public disclosure of an informal discussion of tenure with Faculty Senate leaders gave the impression of “unwarranted interference.”
Regents have also shut faculty members out of the process that generated the controversial revisions to the code, Berscheid said.
The current secret regents’ discussions have led some to assume that the body may be considering dropping their tenure proposals. Rep. Becky Kelso, DFL-Shakopee, who chairs the University of Minnesota Committee in the House, said she hope the regents tone down their demands. “I do think it is a good thing the regents are considering dropping this,” she said.
Should the regents drop their proposals, however, the unionization drive will still go forward, Berscheid said. The faculty would be pleased to see the suggestions from regents taken off the table, Berscheid said, but the faculty need a legal commitment that the regents won’t revive the proposals.
Even Keffeler’s attempt to change the direction of tenure debate has been met with mistrust among professors. “Many people are reading this as an attempt to interfere with the faculty union effort,” Berscheid said.
Still, in her cover letter to regents, Keffeler said, “When the proper time is available to us, as a result of the lifting of the Status Quo Order, I hope our faculty leaders and administration will join us in taking a fresh look at the many important issues that have been outlined over the past weeks and have divided us all in such a destructive way.”