Tenure vs. Enrollment

A small Michigan university is citing declining enrollment in tenure denials, and faculty members allege the approach violates their contract.

January 28, 2016

Eight tenure letters went out last week at Lake Superior State University, a small public university in Michigan. Three were denials, and of those three, at least two cited declining enrollment as the sole reason the recipient would not be recommended for tenure.

“Enrollment at Lake Superior State University has declined for the last several years, leading to a reduced demand for … courses,” reads one such letter sent to Inside Higher Ed by a faculty member who requested not to be named. “We have been able to maintain employment for our faculty due to retirements and moves to part-time status but these alone have not been, and will not be, sufficient. Given the projected decrease of enrollment for the 2016-17 academic year, Lake Superior State University must reduce its staffing.”

These letters, as well as two nonrenewals of probationary faculty, have angered the Lake Superior State University Faculty Association, a union affiliated with the Michigan Education Association. Members of the union's executive committee, who asked not to be identified by name, said the university never warned these faculty members that the university’s enrollment would become a consideration in future decisions about tenure. The faculty association's agreement with the university says in the section about tenure that recommendations are to be based on only two factors: the applicant's collegiality and a review of the candidate's tenure application.

“Faculty who were hired into these tenure-track positions have not reported any notification at time of hire that financial concerns may interfere with the tenure review process,” committee members wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “All of these faculty have consistently received positive evaluations indicating satisfactory job performance and had received positive recommendation by their deans, schools and university review committee.”

“There have been concerns over the financial condition of the university for the past several years as well as declining student enrollment,” the email said. “This may be a concerted effort to avoid presentation of exigencies.”

Enrollment at Lake Superior State has been declining. In early December, the financial ratings agency Standard and Poor’s revised its outlook for the university’s bond rating from “stable” to “negative,” according to the local Sault Ste. Marie Evening News. S&P noted in that decision that the university’s enrollment had declined by 20 percent since 2010 and was down again last year after a slight uptick in 2014.

A university spokesman said, however, that hasn’t been a secret.

“We haven’t been hiding any financial concerns,” said Thomas Pink, director of public relations. “We have had five years of declining enrollment and our employee base has stayed basically the same. We have an obligation to look at that.”

So, Pink said, there is nothing abnormal about that reality playing a part in tenure decisions. “Merit and financial considerations are both taken into account for tenure,” he said. And, as far as the possibility of contract violations raised by the faculty union goes, “whatever the contract outlines, that’s what they would follow.”

Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer for the American Association of University Professors, said it’s not unheard of for enrollment or finances to play a role in tenure consideration, but universities should make it clear to new hires that that may be the case.

“It is something that does happen,” Tiede said, though he cautioned that he was not familiar with the situation at Lake Superior State University. But, speaking generally, he said AAUP’s concern would be that new faculty members understand up front that what Tiede called “institutional need” could play a role in future tenure or renewal decisions.

“We would expect them to have explained to faculty early in their term at the university that that would be one of the criteria they would be evaluated on,” he said. “But evaluating the specific claims at [Lake Superior State University] would really depend on their specific circumstances.”

The faculty union says it is looking into possible contract violations, and, because two of the faculty association's three probationary faculty members received nonrenewal notices, the Michigan Education Association is investigating "legal action related to retaliation."


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