Regents pass tenure plan

by Brian Bakst

Despite a last-minute appeal by Jean Keffeler to hold off on tenure reform, the Board of Regents passed a new Law School tenure code Thursday.
“I’m concerned about what such action might say about how we as a collective board conduct our business,” said Keffeler, who was silent and visibly shaken as the other regents voted unanimously in favor of the new plan.
By changing the tenure code for Law School faculty members, regents took their largest step toward resolving the drawn out tenure impasse. For some faculty members the move represented a much-desired reprieve because the new code gives administrators no extended layoff authority. But other faculty members said the code’s passage will add to an ever-increasing distrust of the regents.
The new code is a compromise of the Faculty Senate, Sullivan, and Reagan-Spence tenure proposals. It includes extensive post-tenure peer review, more temporary teaching assignments, the possibility for longer pre-tenure probation and across-the-board pay reductions in times of financial crisis.
The new plan does not make mention of a two-year moratorium on further changes to the Law School tenure code, which University President Nils Hasselmo asked the regents to include.
In its place is a process that requires Hasselmo’s administration to pinpoint where University-wide retirements will occur. One year after assuming power, the new University president and his administration will report to the board on whether the study is providing the University with enough flexibility for future financial challenges. During that year, the regents cannot make changes to the tenure code.
Law professor Fred Morrison said he believes the proposal provides adequate faculty protection. “As a member of the University community, I would recommend this document to other faculty because it protects academic freedom, provides due process and deals will programmatic change in the same fashion that the Faculty Senate recommended,” he said.
Keffeler posed numerous rhetorical questions to the other regents, challenging their decision to pass the code at a meeting that was planned less than 17 hours earlier.
Keffeler cautioned the board against approving a code on a technicality. “I am concerned about our adopting of this code in the atmosphere of crisis, the atmosphere of an emergency meeting.”
The regents were unsure if they could act on the tenure code, as originally scheduled for Friday. But Wednesday the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services invalidated the Law School’s attempt to freeze labor conditions, sparking the regents’ agenda change. The bureau determined the school needed one more union card to uphold a labor freeze order.
Several regents gazed solemnly at Keffeler as she presented her case. Faculty members were surprised by the new friend they had in Keffeler, who just months earlier was pushing for harsh revisions to the code. “It was a shock to me,” said University Faculty Alliance Co-Coordinator Tom Walsh.
This month’s regents meetings are Keffeler’s. Last week she announced her resignation citing a conflict between her views and the direction of the board as the impetus for her decision. Gov. Arne Carlson has yet to name a replacement.
To pass the new code, the regents took advantage of a special clause in their bylaws and a Minnesota statute that allowed them to call for a special meeting without giving 24 hours notice.
Kerry Kinney-Fine, a legislative analyst for the state Legislature, said if anyone contests the emergency meeting status, the board would have to justify the grounds it used for the immediate action.
Regents Chairman Tom Reagan said the “need to resolve these tenure issues as soon as possible”, in addition to Wednesday’s developments, was enough to warrant the emergency meeting. “When I found out at 5 o’clock (Wednesday night) that we had a window of opportunity, I said good, we’re going to call a special meeting tonight,'” he said. “Logistically we couldn’t do it (Wednesday), so I said let’s do it as soon as we can (Thursday) morning.'”
Walsh speculated that the regents feared a law faculty member would deliver a union card to reinstate the state order if the regents didn’t act as quickly as possible. Reagan and Regent Patricia Spence said this was not the case.
Josh Tilsen, a mediation services representative, said he simply didn’t know if the Law School could have handed in an additional card and if that card could have led to a reinstatement of the labor freeze order. “It had occurred to me, but I haven’t given it much thought, and I can’t say anything right now,” he said.
The Law School had an original Nov. 1 deadline to file for a labor freeze, although Tilsen said it is unclear whether a freeze could be introduced after that date.
Keffeler said that adopting tenure revisions for the law professors in such a state of haste would send the wrong message to faculty. She said faculty members, throughout the tenure reform process, feared that the board “may take action faculty oppose through some clever technicality.”
“Will voting on a tenure code today confirm that fear?” Keffeler asked the other regents. “Will it add to the atmosphere of distrust?”
Several faculty members in the audience shouted “yes!” Following the meeting, Walsh agreed with many of Keffeler’s statements. Most of all, Walsh and other union supporters were upset that Keffeler was the lone regent to discuss tenure in depth at the meeting.
“This is the most momentous thing they’ve done and they did it in 30 minutes,” Walsh said. “The only discussion was about their emotions, and they didn’t talk about the substance of the issue.”
Walsh also alluded to a comment made by Keffeler about further changes to other faculty members’ tenure codes as a basis for distrusting the regents.
Keffeler said passing the new code might be interpreted by “faculty that they no longer need to fear other versions of the tenure code, at least for the time being.”
Reagan would not say whether the proposal passed for the Law School would be applicable to other faculty members if regents were allowed to act on the tenure code of other units.
Nor would he deny if other changes were possible. “There’s no guarantee in life; there’s no guarantee for anything,” Reagan said.
Walsh suspects the changes for the Law School are meant only for that unit. “They are not going to close the Law School; there is no reason to have a layoff policy for the Law School,” he said. “There is a reason to have a layoff policy for the Academic Health Center.”
The health center faculty could face tenure reform if they do not vote for inclusion in the union drive. The vote is scheduled for Nov. 21.
Pending the union vote for the rest of the faculty, the regents could have another potential opportunity to change tenure. If the union vote — which could happen as early as December — is unsuccessful, the faculty would have to wait one year before attempting another election.
Technically, this would allow the regents about six months to change tenure before the new administration takes power on July 1 when the one-year moratorium goes into effect.
But given the troubles this tenure debate has already caused, Reagan said it would be unlikely that the regents would enact unpopular changes before July should the election fail.
While calling the new code a sincere attempt at reform, Keffeler added that it lacked many of the policy objectives regents had set out to address. She said the compromise is inadequate. “It specifically and explicitly avoids serious issues that as regents we agreed must be addressed.”
Regent William Hogan disagreed. The former professor said the compromise allows the board to move forward in resolving the University’s tenure troubles. “We’ve made some mistakes, but so what? We’re now at the point we need to be,” Hogan said.
“In no way will the action taken today stifle the discussion; if anything it will probably encourage discussion,” Hogan said, adding that if he were still a tenured professor he would be proud of the new tenure code.
Faculty Consultative Committee Chairwoman Virginia Gray said it was time for the regents to make a decision. “The faculty has given its input, and I’m glad we can move forward and talk about some other issues,” she said.
Gray said she thought many faculty members would support the proposal. The consultative committee met behind closed doors later Thursday to discuss what position they would take on the regents’ actions. Gray said the group will formulate a letter to send to faculty explaining its stand.
The University Faculty Alliance also planned to meet Thursday to discuss its next move.
While he did not rule out taking legal action against the regents, Walsh said he will seek input of the group’s members before anything is done.
Walsh said the alliance might also appeal the Bureau of Mediation Service’s Wednesday ruling, calling it a highly politically influenced move.