The University Record, February 22, 1999

‘Return of the J.D.’ prominent in ‘tenure war’ at University of Minnesota

By Kerry Colligan

Luke Skywalker could not have engineered a more fitting resolution to the University of Minnesota’s “tenure war.” The regent’s plan to dissolve the protections of tenure was foiled in Minnesota, not by a warp-speed space cruiser, but by the dean of the law school.

According to Fred Morrison, professor of law at Minnesota, the “tenure war,” like the Star Wars trilogy, is divided into three parts. Episodes 1–3, he began, occurred in the early 20th century, challenging intellectual freedom during the first World War. Episodes 4–6, which Morrison discussed Feb. 15 with a full house at Rackham Amphitheater, involved the aforementioned tenure dissolution. Finally, episodes 7–9, he said, lie ahead.

Morrison’s account of the situation in Minnesota—published in the Journal of Legal Education in September 1997—and his discussion last week, centered on the resolution proposed by E. Thomas Sullivan, dean of the law school, and on the determination of the faculty.

In fall 1996, the Minnesota regents announced a proposal to institute a system of post-tenure review by administrators and, “in the area of programmatic change . . . the regents proposed to grant themselves the authority to close a program by giving 60 days’ notice,” Morrison wrote in Tenure Wars: An Account of the Controversy at Minnesota. Finally, concerning the administration of disciplinary action, the regents “suggested that a faculty member might be disciplined for failure ‘to maintain a proper attitude of industry and cooperation with others within and without the University community.’”

Clearly this “short-term, bottom-line approach” was a threat to academic and intellectual freedom, Morrison said. The initial response to the regents’ proposal was an e-mail message to all faculty alerting them to the “radical nature” of the proposed changes.

Morrison’s description of the early months of the battle for public opinion stress the importance of faculty involvement. The faculty mobilized, enlisting the support of alumni, business and community leaders, state legislators, and the governor to denounce the regents’ proposal and work toward resolution. “In one district, legislators said they saw more university faculty on this issue than they would see taxpayers on highly controversial property tax discussions,” Morrison writes.

Resolution to the conflict came from Sullivan—“The Return of the J.D.,” Morrison called it. Sullivan, one of the only deans to publicly oppose the regents, put forward “a system of shared risk,” Morrison wrote, “in which the university would accept its obligation to relocate displaced faculty [a long-standing university policy], while the faculty would accept flexibility in reassignment and the possibility of across-the-board cuts.”

Sullivan’s proposal emerged from an “extraordinarily tense environment,” Morrison said. “An extreme level of distrust existed between the faculty and the regents, so much so that we could not agree which party would propose the ‘Sullivan Plan.’” In the end, President Nils Hasselmo announced the resolution.

“How did we meet the challenge? The faculty united and responded aggressively to the threat. Faculty were willing to use all of their political and business connections to bring about a result.” And most important, he added, the faculty was “willing to respond to the real issue. Tenure is not written in stone. We were not given a holy tablet brought down from some mountain.

“We succeeded in Episode 6,” Morrison said. The challenge now is to address Episodes 7–9 with equal voracity, he urged. The declining number of tenure-track faculty and the “OMB circular” issue will likely be the next challenges for faculty to face, he said. (Last October, Congress passed a law dictating that data collected under federal grants be made available under the Freedom of Information Act.)

“These things challenge the ability of faculty members to do those things in society which we are paid to do, and that is to challenge accepted wisdom,” Morrison said. One faculty member told Morrison his function was not the function of producing pearls. “His function was to be the grain the sand that provided the irritation around which pearls are produced,” Morrison added.

Copies of Morrison’s article are available from the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs Office, 6048 Fleming, 764-0303.