Faculty cuts revive tenure controversy on North Dakota campus

Dickinson State University has become the latest institution of higher education to announce cuts in faculty and major programs due to a downward trend in enrollment and interest among high school graduates. The retrenchment aims to get ahead of the anticipated economic fallout from declining tuition revenue, according to Forbes.

The latest revelations come from both public and private colleges, small and large institutions, and they are occurring in several regions of the country, another indication that higher education’s financial precarity is not limited to any one kind of school.

DSU President Stephen Easton’s proposed cuts fall far short of the draconian reductions at West Virginia University, where a $45 million budget shortfall led to 143 faculty and 28 academic programs being axed. But Higher Ed Dive notes the news still stirred up controversy on the campus of 1,450 students, due to the simmering issue of tenure.

Dickinson State University will cut eight faculty positions — laying off five tenured professors — as it looks to eliminate seven academic programs, including mathematics, theater and information analytics.

President Stephen Easton has said cutbacks are needed to correct a projected $1 million budget hole. The university hasn’t fallen into a financial crisis, according to Easton, but he has warned it would if current spending levels continued.

The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education must sign off on the academic reductions. But regardless, Easton’s moves will assuredly inflame tensions at the public college.

The cuts come as part of a continuing streamlining process at DSU in recent years aimed at bolstering the institution’s financial position.

The university has already tried to scale back expenses. A presentation Easton made last month showed it reduced costs by $5.3 million in 2020, including $2.6 million from not filling vacant positions and $1.2 million in nonpersonnel costs.

As a part of those 2020 savings, Dickinson State fired 14 employees, resulting in an extra $864,676 over two years. 

Those weren’t tenured faculty jobs, however.

The proposed elimination of tenured faculty positions follows a campaign spearheaded by Easton earlier this year to pass state legislation that would have chipped away at the job protections for tenured professors. The attempt narrowly failed after sparking considerable controversy in the state and nationally.

Easton’s critics have charged that he’s merely trying to drop tenured faculty who have spoken out against him under the guise of consolidation. Earlier this year, Easton railed against what he called “nonproductive tenured faculty” when he testified in favor of a state bill, HB 1446, that would have given him power to more easily fire tenured faculty members.

The public employee union representing some DSU faculty questions the financial basis and need for implementing further cuts at all. The consolidation of academic programs will put pressure on faculty and departments to offer majors that attract more students, according to the Dickinson Press.

Some members of the community have voiced concerns, characterizing the recent changes as a shift towards adopting a technical school or university model akin to a Phoenix Online approach. They see these shifts as potentially signaling the end of traditional liberal and fine arts education in southwest North Dakota. This perspective reflects apprehensions about the potential impact on the region’s educational landscape and the broader implications for the university’s academic identity. The ongoing debate underscores the significance of these transformations and their perceived consequences within the community.

The new direction at DSU will be watched closely across the country as faculty and students adapt to the changing landscape in higher education.