Student forum talks tenure

Tracy Ellingson

After weeks of listening to the opposing sides in the tenure debate, students spoke out about their fears of both a weakened tenure code and a possible faculty union.
About 15 students turned out Wednesday afternoon in the West Bank Union to listen, learn and ask about the impact of proposed tenure reforms on the University’s academic atmosphere. Susan Solarz, a graduate student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, organized Wednesday’s forum, along with Minnesota Student Association President Helen Phin, because she said students need to realize what tenure changes could mean to them.
Students at the forum expressed their concern that the current tenure debate could be a no-win situation for students.
On one hand students lose if the Board of Regents’ proposed revisions are enacted because top professors will leave the University, some students said.
“These changes are not going to get rid of bad teachers,” said Solarz, referring to the theory that the changes will mean the removal of “deadwood” or substandard professors. “They are going to get rid of the best and the brightest.”
Solarz said that the proposed tenure changes will also make recruiting top professors difficult, if not impossible.
Professors at the forum emphasized the issue of academic freedom, which they said directly relates to Solarz’ concerns that the elimination of tenure will lead to the loss of high-quality professors at the University.
Virginia Gray, a professor in the political science department and chairwoman of the Faculty Consultative Committee, told students that tenured professors are free to teach and pursue topics that they feel are important without the threat of losing their jobs. Tenured professors are free from the pressure of economics or outside interests, she said.
College of Liberal Arts senior Matthew Paymar said that other universities have already offered some of his professors jobs at their schools in the wake of the regents’ proposals.
“If tenure is abolished,” Paymar said, “students should basically feel cheated. They will get a worse education.”
But while the students on hand expressed their support for the faculty’s academic freedom, they also voiced their fear of a union.
Phin said she believes unionization should be a last resort because unionization brings with it labor union tactics, such as strikes.
One student said she was pleased with the emphasis on the importance of maintaining a democracy at the University rather than changing to corporatization.
But another student felt unionization is the only way to stop an ever-increasing quest for power by administrators. “I’m in favor of unionizing all the workers at the University,” graduate student Matt Martin said. “One thing I liked in the discussion was (the professors) pointed out that tenure is one issue of many, which are a threat in the administrative changes going on — both to academic freedom and to people’s work conditions on the campus.”
Solarz said students need to make their opinions heard. “The power that the students have to influence the Board of Regents should not be underestimated,” she said.
Solarz also said, in the end, faculty members and students must pull together. “The faculty should really embrace the student support,” she said. “We should work hand in hand on this. We can send a message loud and clear; we will send our education dollars elsewhere if we are forced to learn in an environment which does not value freedom of expression.”