Higher ed faculty question the need for North Dakota tenure scrutiny bill

Professors peppered House Majority Leader Mike Lefor with questions during a virtual public forum about his bill to give certain college and university presidents more scrutiny over tenure process.

The North Dakota House of Representatives meets in the state Capitol on Feb. 11, 2021.
The North Dakota House of Representatives meets in the state Capitol on Feb. 11, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Faculty from multiple North Dakota colleges and universities spoke out in a virtual public forum against a bill to give presidents more scrutiny over the tenure process at two higher education institutions.

Some expressed confusion about why such a bill is necessary, and frustration that their questions weren’t answered during the hour-long forum on Thursday, Feb. 2.

Julee Russell, an English professor at Valley City State University and tenured since 2004, said higher education institutions already have a review process for employees, including tenured faculty.

“I'm not sure what the purpose here is unless the sponsors of the bill think perhaps that the presidents aren't doing their jobs,” Russell told The Forum afterward.

The Northern Plains Ethics Institute (NPEI) hosted the event that featured House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, who introduced House Bill 1446 in mid-January.


The forum was moderated by Tim Flakoll, provost of Tri-College University and NPEI Advisory Board chair, who asked questions of Lefor based on comments from participants.

Approximately 160 participants logged on for all or at least part of the session, Flakoll said.

The bill seeks creation of four-year pilot programs at Bismarck State College and Dickinson State University, with a goal of improving the tenure process. Lefor has said he first wanted the changes system-wide, but instead opted for limited implementation as a trial run.

Under Lefor’s plan, tenured faculty members would be expected to generate more tuition or grant revenue than the combined total of their salary, fringe benefits, compensation, and other expenses.

They would also be evaluated on their compliance with policies and procedures and effectiveness in teaching and advising students.

Lefor said in the public forum the vast majority of tenured professors in the state are highly productive and huge assets for their universities.

But he also said tenure has become “a lifetime appointment absent outrageous behavior,” and under the current system, non-performance is not enough to lead to a firing.

“They get special status and they get paid more. If the tradition is for them to do less, it's time to end that tradition,” Lefor said.


Lefor said his office checked into how many times a tenured faculty member in North Dakota lost their job for cause, and it was just a handful in the last five years.

“If it does not happen at least occasionally, then I don't believe there's any meaningful review in place,” Lefor said.

Bob Newman, a biology professor and graduate studies director at the University of North Dakota, took issue with that.

“There is a deep logical flaw in thinking that (the) number of people fired equates to an effective review process,” Newman wrote.

Florin Salajan, a professor of education at North Dakota State University, said all faculty are already asked to do more with less.

“This bill would not make faculty more productive, but rather more fearful of retribution at the hands of a vindictive president,” Salajan wrote.

Anastassiya Andrianova, an associate professor of English at NDSU who was granted tenure in 2020, said the bill has been described as targeting whistleblowers.

“Tenure is precisely what enables faculty to hold their management and supervisors accountable even if it places them at odds with upper administration,” she wrote in the public forum chat.


She said the bill also sounds like an opening to ideological purging. Andrianova wondered what would prevent an atheist university president from firing faculty who identify as Christians.

“I believe only a foolish president would even attempt to get rid of a productive faculty member simply because the faculty member criticizes the president, which is their right to do,” Lefor answered.

Andrianova has already submitted personal testimony in opposition to House Bill 1446, not on behalf of NDSU.

In it, she focused in part on tenure’s tie to academic freedom, a fundamental faculty right, and her belief that the bill, if passed, would hurt faculty well-being, recruitment and retention.

“I suspect that faculty will leave in droves,” Andrianova wrote in her testimony.

She also submitted a statement in opposition to the bill approved by the Executive Committee of the NDSU Faculty Senate, which she chairs.

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), also submitted testimony in opposition, calling the would-be effects of the bill a "fatal blow to academic freedom."

The North Dakota bill is unfortunately another example of elected state officials taking a hostile stance toward higher education that undermines freedom and democracy, AAUP said in a news release on its website.


Lefor said he'll offer up two changes in the bill to the committee hearing on Friday, Feb. 3.

One amendment would ensure that firing decisions could be appealed to the North Dakota University System Chancellor.

A second amendment would involve striking wording from the bill about “avoiding the use of social media or third-party internet platforms to disparage campus personnel or the institution.”

Lefor ended the forum by saying he was open to further ideas and discussion and that he would read all of the testimony received in the matter.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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