Chilly Climate at Lake State

Many at Michigan's smallest public university see recent tenure denials -- over departmental objections -- as sign of disrespect for liberal arts. 
March 24, 2006

Lake Superior State University, a small public institution in northern Michigan, is used to fighting against the odds. Its hockey team has won three national championships since 1988 -- much to the chagrin of powerhouses like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Faculty members have created a top robotics facility. The university's press office, too, works hard each year to make sure that prospective students know about the remote institution, through such traditions as the annual announcement of the List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.

But LSSU hasn't been seeking attention for the tensions that have become widespread, spurred by a break with tradition to reject tenure for two English professors with strong departmental backing -- and comments from the university's board chair that were viewed as demeaning by many at the institution. 

In November, two well-liked professors in the small School of English and Communication, Matthew Pifer and Charlotte Amaro, were not granted tenure, despite widespread support from their department and students. At Lake State, most tenure-track faculty members sign a contract that calls for them to be reviewed for tenure at the end of 4 1/4 years of service. Over 98 percent of faculty members have achieved tenure at the end of the process, according to administrators and the figure is even higher for those with departmental support.

Six other professors, in science, business and other fields, were approved for tenure at the time Pifer and Amaro were denied. 

“The reason I have decided not to recommend you for tenure is related to the need for budget flexibility,” Bruce T. Harger, vice president for Academic Affairs and Provost of Lake State, wrote in letters to the professors. “I believe the institution is best served by maintaining a number of non-tenured faculty positions during times of declining and uncertain revenues.”

According to Daniel Dorrity, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, the school currently has nine full-time tenured faculty members. At least two are approaching retirement age and two are considering taking leaves of absence.    

When asked why the university is currently advertising three tenure-track assistant professor positions to teach in the School of English and Communication, while stating that it doesn't want to tenure faculty members in the field, Dorrity indicated that hires would not be eligible for tenure for another 4 1/4 years. “New candidates will hope they can get tenure, of course,” he said.  “I would tell any interviewees that if the financial situation stands as it is now that tenure cannot be guaranteed.”

Harger could not be reached for this article because he was in the hospital. President Betty J. Youngblood also could not be reached because she was in Lansing, focusing on financial matters before the state legislature.

Pifer, who is now looking for positions elsewhere, said that this situation is indicative of a larger problem within higher education. “I’m seeing a lot of disrespect for what English has to offer,” he said. “There’s this belief in much of the country that English is a service course -- that it doesn’t have applicability to the real world.

“It’s a disconcerting notion,” added Pifer. “English is an integral way of learning about the world.”    

The LSSU Faculty Association, a union affiliated with the Michigan Education Association, is currently working to reverse Harger’s decision. “The problem is that the provost hasn’t been able to make the case, economically,” said Gregory Zimmerman, president of the association. He said he would have been “very upset” had the provost tried to make a similar decision for a professor of biology in his department who was as well-reviewed as Pifer and Amora were.

The head of the university’s board of trustees, Charles J. Schmidt, said Thursday that “none of the decisions have been pleasant or taken lightly.” “We have some financial problems that are beyond the control of what the administration and board can deal with,” he said. “I wish I could say that things in life are certain.”

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, faced with a large budget deficit after her predecessor left office, has in recent years tightened state spending for higher education. Lake State has taken a significant share of the cuts, and Youngblood has had to let go of nearly 50 staff members in an effort to keep from cutting programs. Enrollment numbers at the university have also been difficult to maintain, partly because it is in such a remote location in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where a small portion of the state's population resides. With the automobile industry facing significant challenges, many higher education officials in Michigan predict that universities will feel more strains.

In a meeting with students and in a letter to the campus newspaper, Schmidt recently had to clarify public statements that made some students and staff members feel unwanted. Some students interpreted his comments as indicating that they should leave the university if they were displeased with its administrators.  The university's newspaper said the phrase "shape up or ship out" hung over the meeting room. He said Thursday that he “didn’t help matters any” and wants new students and faculty members to know that LSSU is “a fantastic place." He said he hoped that within the next couple of years, enrollment would increase by over 5 percent. It currently stands at around 3,000.

Melissa A. Styes, a senior majoring in communications, was one of the students in attendance at the meeting where Schmidt made his initial comments. “I think our university is more focused on training than educating,” she said Thursday. “Administrators and board members seem to think we need an attitude adjustment -- but I think they need to see us as paying consumers. I don’t think they’re fulfilling their obligations to us, in that sense.

“Their actions show us that they don’t value language and communication as much as they should,” she added. “But every person needs to be able to read and communicate. Those of us in this field aren’t being given the consideration we need. I think, ultimately, this could lessen the skills of every student.” 

Schmidt’s advice? “Rather than trying to tear down the place, let’s focus on ways we can make it better.”

At the same time, faculty members -- both those who have recently negotiated a contract and those who are in the process of doing so -- are generally displeased with the concessions they’re making. Members of the Faculty Association recently ratified a contract that will result in a 1 1/2 percent raise and force faculty members to pay a 10 percent portion of their health care costs, while they didn’t have to pay for any prior to the contract. 

“We’re struggling with low morale even though the contract passed,” said Zimmerman. “I hope that we can enter into a new situation where faculty and students feel respected. I think the administration has some bridge-building to do.”


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