Tenure and U: What students stand to lose

In the past few weeks, the local print, television and radio journalists closely followed the dispute between the University Board of Regents and our faculty and administration. The crux of the dispute hinges on a series of radical changes to the revisions of the tenure code that the University Senate approved last spring and forwarded to the regents for their consideration. I served on the University Senate last year and attended the meetings. I was struck by student representatives’ responses to faculty discussions. Like some current or former department chair persons in attendance, students seemed concerned about the idea of modifying the tenure code in order to clean out the deadwood among faculty members, to correct the substandard teaching performance of some faculty members and to rehabilitate or get rid of the worst professors.
Of course, with steadily rising tuition over the last few years and with more tuition hikes to come, students have every right to expect and demand the best quality instruction that faculty members are capable of providing. I would like to see the teaching quality of all University faculty rival the best public and private colleges and universities in the country. I have worked hard over the last 10 years to contribute to quality teaching here and I have met many committed and talented professors and administrators whose collective goal continues to be providing University faculty members with the skills and tools they need to become first-rate teachers in the classroom and laboratory.
What does the current conflict between the University faculty members and the Board of Regents have to do with quality of instruction? Teaching standards are seriously threatened by the regents’ proposed changes to the tenure code. To those students who view the regents’ proposed changes in the code as positive and who — like some unsympathetic members of the press — view the faculty as hostile, indifferent and concerned only with job security for life, I suggest that you might be looking in the wrong place. If the tenure code changes are imposed by the regents, there will be provisions for docking salaries, firing and otherwise punishing nonperforming or troublesome faculty members.
Never mind that a first-year psychology student or even a dog trainer would know that the way to modify behavior is not to punish undesirable actions, but instead to reward closer approximations to the desired response. Let’s leave that aside for the moment and focus our attention on the best professors students have encountered here at the University. You know who they are: men and women who instruct, provoke, motivate and, yes, sometimes even entertain you; men and women whose passion for their research and scholarship is infectious; men and women who, with skill, joy and respect, encourage you to think about the world in different ways than you did before; men and women who make you feel as if you are the most important thing in their universe when they interact with you. These “best” professors are no less at risk than the worst ones if the regents succeed in imposing their proposed revisions to the tenure code.
How do the regents’ proposals adversely affect those professors, as well as students and the quality of education here at the University? In the interest of institutional efficiency and cost containment the regents want the right to consolidate or close programs or majors (with only 60 days notice and without consulting with faculty members or students) that are not cost-effective. If in the “University’s judgment” it will be impossible to reassign affected faculty members to other duties in the University, they will be fired. In the minds of the regents we apparently have a faculty in need of discipline — so much so that the regents want to impose draconian measures on faculty members that no self-respecting student would tolerate. Imagine that on the first day of class your professor told you that you could be kicked out of class for refusing to “maintain … a proper attitude of industry and cooperation with others” inside and outside your classroom. Imagine that this professor also told you on the first day of class that you could be punished for violating “commonly held standards of conduct,” but then refused to explain what was meant by those words.
Were I a student confronted with such nonsense on the first day of class, not only would I leave the classroom to drop the course, but I would write to the dean, the president and even the Board of Regents to scream bloody murder. Those phrases in quotation marks in the paragraph above are not my words; they are the regents’ words in proposing how to deal with so-called problem faculty members. Thus, it’s not surprising that many faculty members are already sending out resum√ás. In the past the University has been viewed by other academic institutions as a premier public research and teaching university. There are and will continue to be jobs elsewhere for faculty members here who are too angry or too afraid to stay. And do you know who will be offered jobs elsewhere first? In all likelihood, the best teachers and researchers.
If the regents succeed in their attempts to impose their version of a tenure code (which focuses more on cost-cutting and economic efficiency than it does on quality education for students and academic freedom for professors), entire majors could be eliminated with the strokes of the regents’ pens (and since when is the best scholarship necessarily the most cost-effective in the short run?). The best professors could leave or be fired. Those who stay will justifiably be scared, angry or demoralized.
You deserve far better than that. So please, stand together with faculty members. Why? Because we are dedicated to preserving and protecting the future of the University of Minnesota, and that includes our students. We can take care of ourselves, but when the best of us leave or are terminated because our departments or programs are closed, who will continue to advocate for the University and for the quality education of its students?

Marti Hope Gonzales is an associateprofessor in the department of psychology.