Tenure: no end in sight

by Brian Bakst

Jim Martyka
and Joel Sawyer

Dubbed everything from a civil war to the abortion issue of academics, the University’s tenure crisis experienced new twists Thursday when Jean Keffeler announced her resignation from the Board of Regents and the Law School faculty officially joined the push for collective bargaining at the University.
The moves are the latest developments in the tenure controversy, a conflict between regents and faculty that recently entered its second year. Discussions on tenure reform, which began in October 1995, have prompted an unprecedented discussion of the faculty tenure code and have led to dramatic and unforeseen effects on faculty-regents relations as well as on the Board of Regents itself.
There is no clear end in sight to the debate. University President Nils Hasselmo summed up the feelings of many on all sides of the tenure debate on Thursday in a letter to the Board of Regents in which he wrote, “It is high time we put this issue behind us.” In his letter, Hasselmo proposed that the board impose a two-year moratorium on tenure revisions after adopting a compromise reform plan for the Law School.
Regents running out of options
The Law School’s action Thursday could be a crippling blow to the Board of Regents, which had hoped to resolve the tenure debate at their November meetings this week.
Regent H. Bryan Neel said the Law School’s decision would probably close tenure discussions.
“It’s very important that the dialogue stays open because it’s a very important issue … I viewed (the November meetings) as a good opportunity to continue discussing tenure issues,” Neel said.
The regents would have discussed a compromise proposal forwarded by Law School Dean E. Thomas Sullivan that was seen as less controversial than the proposals put forth by the regents.
The regents must now find a way to vote on a compromise policy this week or wait until their December meetings in Duluth.
The effort is underway to find a way to implement a revised tenure code on a faculty unit not covered by the cease-and-desist order.
If the regents can find such a unit — and that is questionable — they could then enact a tenure policy that could represent what the regents would do for the entire faculty if given the chance later this year.
One such group under discussion is the University’s administrative and professional staff, including associate deans and some tenured professors. These staff members have been excluded from union election eligibility lists and thus are not covered under the cease-and-desist order.
Mario Bognanno, University President Nils Hasselmo’s chief of staff said that in theory the regents could enact tenure codes for that subset of faculty.
A State Bureau of Mediation Services hearing will be held Wednesday to discuss whether such a unit exists. If one cannot be found, other options for regents include the possibility that union authorization cards filed by the Law School might be found invalid, or that the necessary 30 percent of law school professors did not file cards to activate the cease-and-desist order.
If either possibility is the case, regents would be able to continue discussions and possibly enact a tenure code for the Law School this week.
Union drive continues
If the Law School’s collective bargaining drive is successful, it is possible that the University may have to wait for a union election before any tenure changes take place.
The election, which could take place as early as December, will determine whether or not the University faculty wants to be represented by the University Faculty Alliance in collective bargaining with the administration. If the faculty votes to form a union, the University would be the only top 30 research institution in the nation with a unionized faculty.
Currently, a list of eligible voters has not been determined. Before that can happen, both the University’s Academic Health Center and Law School have to hold elections to see if they will indeed take part in the overall union vote.
Both schools recently received cease-and-desist orders when more than 30 percent of their faculties turned in unionization cards. The rest of the Twin Cities faculty forced a union vote by signing union cards after the Board of Regents in September proposed tenure revisions that had controversial language about layoff provisions. The cease-and-desist orders prohibit the regents from altering any terms of employment until after a union election is held.
University and faculty lawyers are currently in deliberation over lists of voters for the Law School and Academic Health Center elections. The election for the inclusion of the health center will be held Nov. 21. Josh Tilsen, from the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services, said the Law School election will happen around the same time.
Once the elections for inclusion are held, faculty and University lawyers will discuss eligibility lists for the union election, as well as how the vote will be conducted.
Tilsen said that because of the amount of discussion about these elections and voter eligibility, the mediation service has an important job to keep the process going. “We just try to keep things rolling as smoothly as possible,” he said.
The Faculty Alliance, which hopes to represent the faculty in the upcoming election, has been urging members for the past two months to vote for a union. With the help of the American Association of University Professors, they have gained the support of many faculty members.
Although the faculty alliance is the only organization that would currently be included on a union ballot, physics professor Tom Walsh said collective bargaining powers might be transferred to the AAUP if the election succeeds.
The search to replace Keffeler
Mere hours after Law School faculty announced they would join the collective bargaining drive, Keffeler announced her resignation. Some faculty members and administrators have said Keffeler’s resignation is a minor victory in their effort to stop stringent tenure reforms. But what effect Keffeler’s surprise move will have remains to be seen.
Keffeler last year initiated the board’s review of the tenure code to give the University flexibility in times of changing financial support. Keffeler’s hard line on layoffs appeared to soften in the last month, as she sent a letter to the 11 other regents asking them to pull a controversial tenure proposal off the table.
Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Marvin Marshak said Keffeler’s resignation will have an effect on the direction of the tenure debate from an emotional standpoint. “A lot of the tenure debate is psychological,” he said. “It has not just been a dry, academic-type argument. There has been a lot of emotion on both sides.”
Keffeler’s leading role in tenure reform made her an attractive target for faculty attacks, Regent Stanley Sahlstrom said following Keffeler’s announcement.
Sahlstrom is one of four regents who have said publicly that they don’t support layoffs of tenured professors. Regent Warren Larson said he is “leaning and had been leaning toward the Faculty Senate revisions,” which do not include the possibility for layoffs even when programs are closed. Two regents firmly support the layoff language. Other regent stances are less certain.
Many regents say Keffeler’s resignation will not have an effect on the outcome of the tenure debate because other regents have emerged as leaders in the reform effort. In October, a proposal drafted by regents Tom Reagan and Patricia Spence was added to proposals already on the table. Much of the controversial language in the regents’ first proposal was removed in the Reagan-Spence document.
Depending on when regents can vote on any tenure proposals, Gov. Arne Carlson’s appointment to replace Keffeler may have a key vote in the outcome. Carlson lashed out at regents and administrators last week, asking them to end the strife and compromise with the faculty.
At least three potential candidates’ names surfaced Friday — University of St. Thomas business professor Thomas Holloran, who most recently served on a University committee to examine human resources policies; former Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent and former president of Macalester College John Davis; and Minneapolis lawyer and University alumnus John French, who chairs a newly formed panel to review the regent selection process.
Only French could be reached for comment; he said he would not be interested in the 5th Congressional District regents position.