North Dakota Senate defeats bill to change faculty tenure at Bismarck State, Dickinson State

The bill that would have made it easier for tenured faculty to be fired at two North Dakota universities narrowly failed.

Dickinson State University Sign. Dickinson Press photo

BISMARCK โ€” The North Dakota Senate on Friday, March 31, defeated a bill that would have made it easier for presidents at Bismarck State College and Dickinson State University to dismiss tenured faculty.

House Bill 1446 by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, failed in a 21-23 vote. The state House of Representatives in February passed the bill, 66-27.

The Senate Education Committee amended the bill's proposed four-year pilot program into a four-year program for BSC and DSU and gave the measure a unanimous "do pass" recommendation.

Sen. Michelle Axtman, R-Bismarck, said that change better reflected the bill's intent "not to expand this to other universities in the state." Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, said earlier that tenured faculty at North Dakota State University in Fargo and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks were concerned they might face similar legislation in the future.

Lefor had called the measure a "tenure with responsibilities act" and said it would help ensure tenured faculty are meeting obligations and remaining assets to their institutions.


Opponents of the measure said weakening tenure would make it harder to recruit faculty to the state.


Senators who spoke against the bill cited the State Board of Higher Education's constitutional authority.

"The voters saw wisdom in providing greater separation between higher education governance and politics. That addition to our constitution was the origin of the State Board of Higher Education," said Sen. Jonathan Sickler, R-Grand Forks. "The (bill) is among the most significant challenges to the board's constitutionally mandated authority since the board was created in 1938."

Sen. Sean Cleary, R-Bismarck, cited the bill being only for BSC and DSU, "and if this is such a good idea, I don't know why we wouldn't apply it systemwide. And looking at the testimony, it just doesn't seem like other universities would want this either, and that includes leadership at them."

Sen. Don Schaible, R-Mott, said the bill would be an opportunity to expand the role of education at BSC and DSU in their missions, and to improve universities' structures.

Committee Chair Jay Elkin, R-Taylor, said, "I think it's time that these university presidents have some say in who is there and whether or not they are performing appropriately." He said presidents aren't invited for tenured faculty member reviews, but they are held responsible by the Legislature for declining enrollment and increased tuition costs.


Former North Dakota University System Chancellor Larry Isaak had said the bill could risk the accreditation of BSC and DSU due to "the Legislature exerting undue influence in the employment of faculty at the institutions." Accreditation is essentially an independent review of a college or university for quality control.

"The accreditation criteria is very clear that governing boards and institutions must be independent from political influence," Isaak told the Tribune.


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

The State Board of Higher Education opposed the bill and requested to coordinate a joint study with North Dakota lawmakers to review and make recommendations related to a post-tenure review process.

BSC President Doug Jensen supported the board's position, but told the Tribune he didn't believe risk to accreditation was a factor.

The Council of College Faculties and the BSC Faculty Senate also opposed the bill, as did North Dakota United, which represents more than 11,000 public employees and teachers.

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