Mysteryletter sparks anger

by Brian Bakst

An anonymous group that claims to represent faculty members has circulated a document in recent weeks demanding drastic changes in the University’s tenure policy.
The group, which calls itself the Independent Faculty Coalition of the University of Minnesota, advocates more stringent tenure revisions than those proposed in June by the Faculty Senate. The document was distributed to Board of Regents members, top administrators and a host of state officials, including Gov. Carlson.
Because of the traditional faculty defense of tenure and the anonymous submission of the document, many at the University refuse to take the demands seriously. The document has sparked discussion about the identity of the authors and their motive.
Virginia Gray, chairwoman of the Faculty Consultative Committee, finds the anonymous document disheartening and disrespectful to the governance process.
In a prepared statement, Gray said that faculty governance is a process whereby all faculty voices can and should be heard. But she added, “People who subvert democracy by cloaking themselves in anonymity are not behaving in a collegial, professional or responsible manner.”
The anonymous group offers tenure revisions that would eliminate much of the job protection tenured faculty members receive when their departments close. The potential for layoffs under a new tenure system has been a focus of debate since the move toward tenure reforms surfaced last year.
In another departure from the Faculty Senate’s plan, the anonymous group proposes more administrative intervention into the faculty grievance process.
Overall, the authors of the document say their revisions would be in the best interests of the majority of faculty members.
But Gray strongly disagrees. “This group is no friend of the faculty,” she said.
Revisions proposed by the Faculty Senate — an elected body that is essential in determining faculty policy — would sustain protections for professors if departments are closed.
Those revisions would also allow for a longer pre-tenure period in some departments, more thorough post-tenure reviews that can lead to salary reductions and more temporary teaching assignments.
Gray is not the only one who wants to discard the views of the anonymous group. Physics professor Tom Walsh, a coordinator of the University Faculty Alliance, which is seeking to unionize faculty members, said the document is absurd and contradictory. The document urges others to speak out in favor of its contents, while its authors fail to identify themselves.
“What are you supposed to do with (a document) like that?” Walsh asked. “It could even be a prank.”
He said the only way he would take the group seriously was if its members made the statements publicly, without anonymity.
“I would be surprised if anyone takes this seriously,” he added.
Gray said in an interview that the timing of the document is especially odd. “Where were these people when we were discussing (tenure) throughout the year?” she added. “We are trying to wrap this thing up, and this isn’t helpful.
“To make these proposals at the last minute in an anonymous fashion is a cowardly act of desperation that should not be taken seriously by anyone.”
State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, echoed Gray’s statements. “It’s pretty sad if you don’t believe that you can have full discussion of issues such as this” without anonymity, she said.
Walsh said the regents should disregard the document when they act on tenure.
“I would hope the regents would respond to this the same way others have looked at it,” Walsh said. “Look at it and throw it in the trash.”
Regents who were reached for comment declined to speak on the matter. The regents have made few public comments on tenure since the Faculty Senate presented its revisions to the board in June. Regents plan to discuss the issue at their upcoming retreat.
Many on campus are scrambling to find the identity of the authors, who at one point write, “The Faculty Senate and President have not met the needs of the vast majority of the University’s faculty who are highly productive in their teaching and research endeavors.”
The group said in its letter that it chose not to submit its members’ names because they do not want to be subjected to a hostile work environment for speaking so adamantly about tenure reforms.
Gray is not satisfied with the reasons the group gave for remaining anonymous. She added that the document is so “pro-administration and unsupportive of faculty” that she has trouble believing it was written by a group of faculty members.
Others, like Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Marvin Marshak, say they think the size of the group is relatively small. Marshak said, “If this really came from a large group of people, it would be hard for this group to remain anonymous.”