ND lawmakers want more accountability for tenured professors

After decades of growth and generous taxpayer funding, more colleges and universities suddenly face declining enrollment, budget deficits and cutbacks. The pressure’s on to find efficiencies, consolidate departments and provide programs more in line with the demands of the marketplace.

As a result, one of higher education’s hallowed traditions — tenure — has slowly, but surely also come under increasing scrutiny and expectations. Professors who attain tenure have largely been immune from removal from their positions as a safeguard of academic freedom, leaving little opportunity for administrators to manage their job performance.

But the North Dakota House has approved a bill that provides the leaders of two state schools more control over faculty, including the ability to fire underperforming tenured professors under certain conditions. Forum News says the legislation would establish a four-year pilot program to assess its impact and effectiveness.

House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, who introduced the bill, has called it a “tenure with responsibilities act,” and said it would help ensure tenured faculty are meeting obligations and remaining assets to their institutions.

“If we want to be competitive in the future, we have to give all the universities the authority … to have oversight for their university,” he said during floor debate Monday, adding later, “We have a responsibility, No. 1, to the students of this state, and also to the taxpayers.”

Fired faculty would have the option to appeal their dismissal to the chancellor of the state university system. But critics say the move could backfire in the long run.

Opponents of the measure say weakening tenure will make it harder to recruit faculty to the state.

“We talk a lot in this chamber about workforce needs. Our colleges also have workforce needs, and … college professors, they look to a place that’s going to provide them some stability, some time for them and reasons for them to put their roots down,” said Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo.

The legislation pertains only to two Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College, but professors at other state institutions are already looking over their shoulder.

The bill does not apply to research universities, though Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, acknowledged that tenured faculty at North Dakota State University in Fargo and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks “are concerned” they might face similar legislation in the future.

“Possibly so,” she said. “However, what is at stake here, it is the long-term success of our higher education institutions.”

The measure for increased accountability and responsibilities for tenured staff still needs to be approved by the North Dakota Senate. It’s an improvement that the president of one of the affected colleges calls long overdue.

DSU President Stephen Easton supports the bill. He told a House committee earlier that the rights of nonproductive tenured faculty have been elevated over students, taxpayers and other faculty.