Debate over tenure reform puts state lawmakers at odds

Brian Bakst

Tenure code changes have been a source of conflict between University officials and faculty members for many months. But now debate has intensified among Minnesota state legislators.
A University Faculty Senate proposal for tenure reform has been criticized as not going far enough to achieve state goals. In a letter last week, state Reps. Becky Kelso, DFL-Shakopee, and Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, asked the University Board of Regents to consider going beyond the proposed changes.
But in a heated letter dated Tuesday, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, strongly encouraged the board to stick to the current proposal for reforming tenure and said that, by law, state funds couldn’t be withheld from the University based on the regents’ tenure decision.
Much of the debate concerns a $6.6 million appropriation, intended for the University’s Academic Health Center. The law states that 90 percent of the funds will be released after the regents confirm changes in the tenure code have been made.
Since the regents did not act on tenure in July, the funds remain under the control of State Commissioner of Finance Laura King at least until the next regents’ meeting in September.
Minnesota State Finance Commissioner Laura King told the regents earlier this month that the funds may be in jeopardy because the Faculty Senate’s proposed changes don’t meet the requirements of the law.
“There is clear legislative history to show that the … (King, Kelso, Kelley) demands were rejected,” Kahn wrote. “They should not be reinstated by a combination of Legislative arrogance, Gubernatorial fiat and regent cowardice.”
Kahn wrote that changes proposed by the Faculty Senate are substantial.
An early version of the appropriation bill gave the finance commissioner the power to decide when sufficient changes had been made in the tenure code. That part of the bill was changed to give decision-making power to the regents.
In June, the Faculty Senate presented a proposal that includes the possibility of an extended pre-tenure probationary period, more temporary teaching assignments and a more thorough post-tenure review process. Under the plan, a series of poor post-tenure reviews can result in pay reductions.
Kelso and Kelley wrote that the faculty recommendations do not allow the University enough flexibility to lay off professors and to hold faculty members accountable for their performance and productivity.
But Kahn disagreed.
“To deny the existence of clear incentives for performance means that they don’t understand the present system at the University of Minnesota,” Kahn wrote.