North Dakota Weighs Tenure Change

University system’s plan to curtail notice for tenured professors dismissed for financial reasons from a year to 90 days provokes faculty concerns.

January 26, 2017
 
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The North Dakota University System is considering a major change to its policy on firing tenured professors, prompting concern from faculty members at the system’s 11 public colleges and universities.

If passed, the new policy would reduce the termination notice given to tenured faculty members from at least 12 months to at least 90 days.

System administrators proposed the change in anticipation of deep budget cuts to higher education later this year, said Billie Jo Lorius, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota system. In 2016, the system cut about 500 full-time positions across the state's public colleges, Lorius said, and officials are bracing themselves for a similar scenario this year.

The North Dakota system will need to trim about 20 percent from its budget this year, according to Eric Murphy, president of the Council of College Faculties, the governance body for the university system.

“We wish this were something we weren’t having to think about, but we have to be flexible and adaptable,” Lorius said. “Everything needs to be on the table.”

From the administration’s perspective, the 12-month termination notice is financially unsustainable. “This timeline means that the process of eliminating the position of a tenured faculty member is generally too lengthy to produce cost savings within a biennium,” the proposal states. The proposal would allow campuses to save 75 percent of what they’re paying terminated tenured faculty members now. The proposal would not, however, change the circumstances under which tenured professors can be fired, which include financial exigency and the elimination or consolidation of academic programs, courses and units.

“We want our faculty to know that we value them. We value education. We value tenure,” Lorius said. “That’s the biggest drawback -- the human component … but we know that somehow, some way, people are going to be impacted.”

Faculty members say that termination notices should not be negotiable. Given the hiring cycle in academe, which typically aligns with the regular academic year, such a change could create long periods of unemployment for those affected, said Kathryn Gordon, president of the Faculty Senate at North Dakota State University. This, in turn, would initiate a domino effect that could eventually hurt the quality of students’ education, she said.

If professors feel their jobs are at risk, they may look for work at other institutions that offer better security. That could create a pipeline of some of the best faculty members leaving the system, and without effective instructors, the students suffer, Gordon said.

“Our main concern is that there can be disruptions to the education system if a faculty member is terminated with 90 days’ notice,” she said. “It’s likely [that person’s] class isn’t being taught. If the faculty member was mentoring a grad student, that grad student could be delayed [in graduating]. It’s not just the individual faculty members -- it’s thinking about all the different effects it might have.”

In an anonymous online survey of more than 500 faculty members at North Dakota State, 97 percent said they opposed the proposed policy change, Gordon said. Collectively, they feel the change would compromise the university’s value of “providing a superior teaching and learning environment within and outside of the traditional classroom,” which is why Gordon plans to speak out against the proposal during a Thursday morning meeting of the State Board of Higher Education.

The other 10 colleges in the system will also have a chance to voice their concerns during the hour allotted for public comment. A representative of the Council of College Faculties is expected to speak in opposition to the proposed policy change as well, Murphy said.

It’s possible the board could make a decision Thursday, Lorius said, but its members have scheduled several meetings on this issue late into February.

Last semester, Murphy asked the board to compromise by changing the policy to a 180-day termination notice, but the board opted to move ahead with 90 days. Still, he still has hope the proposal won't pass: faculty members and administrators at each college are working together to fight it, which he says is significant in itself.

"I would’ve said two weeks ago that it was probably a done deal," Murphy said. "Now, I think it’s got a chance of not making it, but I think we have to present a really good argument [in the meeting]."

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