Former chancellor sees accreditation risk in North Dakota higher ed tenure bill
The threat from the bill is "that the Legislature is exerting undue influence in the employment of faculty at the institutions," the former chancellor said.
BISMARCK — A former North Dakota higher education leader is warning that a bill to change faculty tenure could risk the accreditation of Bismarck State College and Dickinson State University.
Former University System Chancellor Larry Isaak, who held the post from 1994-2003, recently shared his concerns with the Senate Education Committee. The panel is handling House Bill 1446 by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson.
The state House of Representatives passed the bill in a 66-27 vote last month. The bill, which calls for a four-year pilot project, would make it easier for presidents at BSC and DSU to dismiss tenured faculty. Opponents say weakening tenure will make it harder to recruit faculty to the state.
Accreditation is essentially an independent review of a college or university for quality control. The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions describes it as “a signal that an institution has been vetted by an outside organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an authority on postsecondary quality.”
BSC and DSU are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which says accreditation examines the quality of a college beyond its academics to include "soundness of its governance and administration," as well as adherence to mission, financial sustainability and sufficiency of resources.
The threat Isaak sees from the bill is "that the Legislature is exerting undue influence in the employment of faculty at the institutions," he said.
"The accreditation criteria is very clear that governing boards and institutions must be independent from political influence," Isaak said.
He cites North Dakota State University, formerly North Dakota Agricultural College, losing its institutional accreditation in 1938 after political intrigue involving the governor led to the removal of faculty and resignation of the college president.
The Tribune sought comment from current Chancellor Mark Hagerott on Isaak's concerns. North Dakota University System spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said, "As far as accreditation, it is a possibility that it could be affected but we wouldn’t know the full impact unless the bill was implemented."
Hagerott and the State Board of Higher Education initially took neutral positions on the bill. Last week, Hagerott testified in opposition to the bill, reflecting the board's unanimous vote in February to oppose the bill and request to coordinate a joint study with lawmakers to review and make recommendations related to a post-tenure review process.
BSC President Doug Jensen supports the board's position, and told the Tribune he doesn't believe risk to accreditation is a factor.
"According to the 2022 (American Association of University Professors) Survey of Tenure Practices, 67.6% of public higher education institutions in the country have a post-tenure review program," Jensen said in a statement.
Jensen did not submit testimony on the bill.
Isaak included his concern about accreditation in a Feb. 20 letter to the State Board of Higher Education.
Board member Nick Hacker said Friday he hadn't read enough of Isaak's concerns to comment.
Isaak said the bill is unnecessary since the State Board of Higher Education is "empowered, not authorized, to handle employment issues." The board can look at tenure at any time, he added.
According to Isaak, lost accreditation would mean students would no longer be eligible for federal financial aid, they would have difficulty transferring credits if they wanted to move to another school, and "a significant decline in enrollment" also could result.
The issue is one ongoing in other states, such as in Florida, "passing laws that affect the curriculum, and accreditors are looking in on that," Isaak said.
Lefor said he's not concerned about loss of accreditation, telling the Tribune, "Why are they doing it in Florida? Why are they doing it in Texas? Because they vetted this already."
The only testimony in support of the bill, other than Lefor, has come from Dickinson State University President Steve Easton, who testified to a legislative committee in February. In some cases, Easton said, tenured professors are teaching fewer students than non-tenured faculty who are paid less and have fewer protections.
The BSC Faculty Senate submitted testimony opposing the bill, saying in part it threatens the school's polytechnic mission "because it would make us less competitive for the talent we need to prepare tomorrow’s workforce."
University of North Dakota President Andy Armacost opposed the bill in testimony he submitted last week, telling lawmakers "presidents have sufficient powers already in place to remove faculty members for cause, including those with tenure."
The Senate Education Committee has not yet made a recommendation on the bill.