Board of Regents not the enemy of tenure

Few issues have been so frightfully misunderstood as the effort by the Board of Regents to stimulate modernization of the University tenure code.
At the board’s urging, the University administration and faculty conducted an extensive reexamination of the tenure code and in June presented a proposal, drafted by the Faculty Senate, for revising the code. The board reviewed that draft and earlier this month suggested some additional revisions, which were intended to focus dialogue between the board and faculty prior to final approval of a reformed tenure code next month.
In a hailstorm of reaction, the board is being characterized as an enemy of tenure. The proposed revisions have been called reckless and radical in the press. A message on the Internet disingenuously described the board’s call for reform as “a serious campaign to end tenure, not only at the university but nationally as well.” None of it is true. Let me explain.
Since the Middle Ages, universities have taken on the twin responsibilities of educating students and advancing knowledge. The English educator and churchman John Henry Newman said a university must strive to be “a seat of universal learning” where teachers assemble to create “a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes.”
The Board of Regents unquestionably agrees that two essential components of the educational environment Cardinal Newman describes are academic freedom and tenure. Academic freedom is crucial because it protects the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Tenure is necessary because it assures faculty they will have sufficient time to do their research and teach their students.
Unfortunately, this idyllic scene faces harsh and unforgiving realities today. Increasingly, demands are growing while resources required by the University are becoming scarcer. Though we may wish it otherwise, there is growing competition for teachers, students and money.
That’s why last year the board, which is accountable to the people of Minnesota for the success and survival of the University, asked the administration to begin reviewing a number of areas — including tenure — to identify where changes might be made that would help improve the University’s ability to persevere in these uncertain times, especially in view of declining public money.
The fusillade of words that responded to the regents’ revisions centered around overcharged reactions to three issues: layoffs, pay cuts and discipline.
Let’s take these issues in order. Tenure is designed to provide University professors with a measure of protection in their pursuit of knowledge. If a department or program is discontinued or restructured, however, it can be a severe economic burden for the University to be obligated, as it is now, to continue the employment (and salary) of professors who no longer have a place to teach. What the board proposed would allow for reassigning and retraining faculty members when possible, and laying them off when it is not, but never in violation of the academic freedom of a faculty member.
Others recognize that flexibility is needed. The American Association of University Professors agrees that layoffs may occur “as a result of bona fide formal discontinuance of a program or department of instruction.” And this is allowed at many schools, including Penn State, Purdue and the University of Michigan.
During its review of tenure, the board learned that the present University policy on pay cuts, which says that no tenured professor’s base salary can ever be reduced, is uniquely protective. We are aware of no other institution that provides its faculty with an enforceable right against any reduction in base salary. It is prudent, in our opinion, to give the administration the authority to adjust salaries when there are compelling reasons to do so. And only then.
Much criticism has been directed at one phrase — “proper attitude” — contained in the preamble to the section on disciplinary actions.
The preamble acknowledges that one function of the University is to establish “a proper environment of intellectual integrity and mutual respect” between faculty and students and “the larger community.” It goes on to say that “such an environment is fostered when faculty members are mindful of their responsibilities to maintain standards of competence and a proper attitude of industry and cooperation with others within and without the University community.” Interestingly, this language is almost identical to the preamble in the faculty discipline section of the tenure code at Michigan State.
Moreover, the board expected that semantic differences would be worked out during discussions prior to final action on the revised code. In fact, just such a meeting was underway Sept. 13 when all dialogue was halted by a Status Quo Order from the state Bureau of Mediation Services.
The Board of Regents is not trying to emasculate the tenure code. It wants to protect and ensure the academic freedom and independence of the faculty while giving the University the flexibility to make prudent changes when there are compelling reasons to do so. And we will pursue every opportunity allowable under the law to continue discussing this important issue. The goal, as always, is to improve the ability of the University to provide students with the very best possible education.
Tom Reagan is the chairman of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. This article originally appeared in Friday’s edition of the Star Tribune, and is reprinted with permission from the Star Tribune.