Tenure faces scrutiny on North Dakota campuses again

Professors at two North Dakota institutions of higher education dodged a bullet last year when lawmakers fell just short of passing legislation to reduce protections for tenured faculty. At the time, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education opposed the proposed legislative changes, but offered to undertake a joint review of the system with legislators.

The study’s surprisingly blunt preliminary findings have put the issue of tenure on the front burner with policy makers again, landing North Dakota in the headlines of national publications like Inside Higher Ed.

Roughly a year after the bill’s failure, a draft report from a board committee suggests the board may push for far broader reductions to tenure protections than the legislation would have implemented. The changes could affect 11 public higher education institutions, with a stated goal of fewer tenured positions specifically at the state’s community colleges.

“We are going to be, unless the board surprises me, reducing the number of tenured professors at the community colleges,” [Chancellor of the North Dakota University System Mark] Hagerott told a legislative committee earlier this month. He connected this to another hot higher education topic, artificial intelligence, by saying he’s heard human lifespans will increase.

The increased scrutiny of tenure protections for college professors coincides with similar action in several other red states. The preliminary report compared tenure numbers in surrounding states in order to provide context for North Dakota.

For the two-year colleges, it suggests “a goal of no more than approximately 50 percent of the faculty holding tenure positions by 2030.” That would be a big change: Currently, only one public institution in the state has no more than 50 percent of its faculty in tenure or tenure-track positions, the report says. At one two-year college, the North Dakota State College of Science, the rate is 97 percent.

The report includes comparative information from other Upper Midwest states showing most of their community colleges don’t have high rates of tenure. “Little or no tenure was awarded to faculty at two-year institutions in Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota or Wisconsin,” the draft says. “Conversely, Minnesota two-year colleges had the highest percentage of tenured faculty with nearly 100 percent either tenured or on a tenure track.”

The group representing North Dakota faculty members have pushed back against the proposed reduction in tenured positions, along with some college and university officials. They not only defend tenure on the traditional grounds of academic freedom, but job security as college enrollment continues to decrease.

Academic affairs officials at four of the state’s five community colleges—Lake Region State, Williston State, Dakota College at Bottineau and North Dakota State College of Science—have, unlike Easton, the Dickinson State president, defended tenure at their institutions. “Faculty hired with the special appointment [non–tenure track] contract have almost zero job security from year to year as their contract is renewed only at the discretion of the institution’s president,” they wrote to the board.

Tenure, they wrote, is an important safeguard of academic freedom in teaching, not just research. “We believe in the importance of policy that guarantees academic freedom in teaching and research, provides for the faculty member’s security of position and recognizes their important contribution to shared governance,” they wrote.

A key reason given for the potential changes is to improve efficiency, adaptability and affordability as competition intensifies for a shrinking number of students. The draft report still awaits discussion and potential revision by the members of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education in the weeks ahead.