JOB FOR LIFE?
NOVEMBER 25, 1996
At universities across the U.S. receiving "tenure" has guaranteed a professor a job "for life". But new financial realities - especially at state run universities - are causing some schools to re-evaluate their tenure code. Fred De Sam Lazaro reports on some controversial changes proposed for the University of Minnesota.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To the 48,000 students at the University of Minnesota test scores are perhaps the top priority. For students and alumni, sporting results also rank at the top of the list in importance. But to state lawmakers, the top priority is money. And the university is a massive enterprise, with hundreds of buildings, 19 colleges, and a Fortune 500-size payroll. But in times of tight budgets and a changing economy, legislators like Becky Kelso say the university hasn't adjusted to the new realities.
A RealAudio version of of this NewsHour segment is available.
Browse the Online NewsHour's education coverage.
University of Minnesota Home Page
REP. BECKY KELSO, Minnesota State Legislator: There is not enough money for the status quo, and there hasn't been for a while and no reason to think that there's going to be. The University of Minnesota is a classic case of a situation where they're doing too much of everything and not enough of anything to maintain quality.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kelso would like the university to engage in what she calls strategic downsizing, beefing up programs for which the university's well regarded, like the medical disciplines and engineering, and scaling back those for which it's not so well reputed. The chief obstacle, she says, is the university's tenure code. Faculty members must pass a probationary period of about six years. Then they're protected by the code from layoffs for anything short of criminal activity or an extreme financial emergency. No other university employees are given tenure.
TOM REAGAN, University Board of Regents: Now faculty members should have a job for life is what our present tenure code says.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Tom Reagan is one of several allies the legislators have on the Board of Regents, 12 citizens appointed by lawmakers to oversee the university.
TOM REAGAN: The current code just doesn't give the university the flexibility it needs to meet the rapidly changing circumstances in higher education.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Earlier this year, the Regents Board proposed a plan to toughen the tenure code. It would allow administrators to lay off tenured professors if their programs were reduced or eliminated.
TOM REAGAN: If we should identify a unit we want to close, we will do the following things: First is, you know, they're going to have to make a case we should close the administration as to do that. Okay. If we agree, yeah, we ought to examine it and we're going to close it, then we tell the faculty we're going to fit you--we're going to put you someplace in the university where you fit. We're not going to take somebody who doesn't fit.
We're not going to take a surgeon and put him in the History Department. If there is no fit, or you don't want to, or for some reason we just can't keep you on, then we think maybe it's best after a good severance package is given to them to just sever the relationship.
HY BERMAN, Professor: I hate to say it, but I think everybody here knows that this Board of Regents as presently constituted is a cancer in the university. This Board of Regents has to resign, or we have to fight with the union.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Faculty members responded with a vehement rejection of the Regents' plan. They launched a drive to organize a union.
HY BERMAN: On the question of individualism versus the community, anybody want to take a crack at that? Do you want to take a crack at that?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: History Prof. Hy Berman says the Regents are trying to shift power to set academic priorities, that power traditionally has rested with the faculty, and the plan would give it to regents and administrators, people he says who are not qualified to decide issues as colleges.
HY BERMAN: If you had to have a heart transplant surgery, would you go to an MBA to have that done? Would you go to a person with a Ph.D. in education to have that done? No. You go to the best heart surgeon you could find. Similarly in the academic enterprise, are you going to go to a chair of the Board of Regents who is a political hack to determine academic content?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Berman says the tenure system came into widespread use in the forties. At most universities today, it covers about 60 percent of faculty members. Berman says tenure protects academic scholars from powerful outside influences and preserves the integrity of research. It provides the freedom, for example, to unveil research results that could hurt the sales of a powerful company or industry. Also, tenure protects academics whose political views may be out of favor, a fear Berman has under the regents' proposed tenure revisions.
HY BERMAN: It's no secret that I have been in a controversial conflict mode with some members of the Board of Regents. What would prevent them from saying that we are going to eliminate the program in 20th century U.S. history, U.S. labor history, and Minnesota history. And by saying that, they're eliminating my position and firing me, in other words, politically firing me, although say they're doing it for programmatic reasons. I'm just giving that as an example of how, in fact, the guarantees of tenure and academic freedom would be undercut.
TOM REAGAN: It would never happened in Minnesota. This society is much too open. Our faculty is very aware of that. They'd make a phone call to you. They'd make a phone call to others and say what they're trying to do, and that board member or that board, I think, would find themselves in serious trouble.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: One big source of trouble for the regents has been the administrators. Although the regents' plan would give university President Nils Hasselmo new flexibility to lay off faculty, Hasselmo says he doesn't need it. Hasselmo, who plans to retire next year, says normal attrition will more than allow for streamlining. He fears embittering a faculty that is both academically and financially crucial. Researchers at the university raise some $350 million in grant money, and Hasselmo says they need the job security provided by tenure.
NILS HASSELMO, University President: It has been proven over many years that if you are going to get productivity from our most creative minds, you need to create an environment where they can invest their time and talent and their futures after a grueling apprenticeship period, they can invest that time and talent on a long-term basis. And I think that's exactly the way a corporation like 3M deals with its creative people, those who are involved in product design.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Facing resistance from their own administrators, loud criticism in the public, and with fears the university's reputation is being damaged nationally, the board earlier this month approved a compromise tenure plan. The new code applies only to the university's law school. Its 31 faculty members are not part of the collective bargaining election.
The new rules allow the university to reassign law professors, even place them at another institution, with the university making up for any lost wages. And it allows for pay cuts in the law school in financial emergencies or for poor performance, although peers must concur with this evaluation. All this could make the new plan palatable to the rest of the staff of professors, according to faculty Senate member Virginia Gray.
VIRGINIA GRAY, Faculty Senate: There is no layoffs. There is reassignment authority but no layoffs, and that was very important to us. And the second thing that was extremely important to us was due process.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: No one's sure whether the region's compromise plan will stave off faculty unionization, or exactly what protections a union would provide. That union election is expected in a few months.