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Three UND professors receive buyouts, university continues to review tenure process

Sean Hightower was excited when he came to UND as a chemistry professor in 2009, but the feeling quickly faded as he came to realize "the wool had been pulled" over his eyes.

University of North Dakota

Sean Hightower was excited when he came to UND as a chemistry professor in 2009, but the feeling quickly faded as he came to realize "the wool had been pulled" over his eyes.
That's why after his application for tenure was denied, he sought a buyout.

"I followed my contract to a T but I had been kind of a been a rebel," Hightower said. "I really think the problem with the chemistry department is the faculty, and I've said that, and I've gotten in trouble."

Tenure is continuing to evolve at UND, as many have moved up as full tenured professors and four have appealed having it denied.

Tenure is usually granted after UND professors have worked for six years, like in Hightower's case, though it is granted earlier on rare occasions, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Steve Light said. It is usually associated with being promoted to associate professor and requires instructors to meet certain standards in three categories; teaching, research and service.

Hightower said he thinks those standards aren't defined well enough to be held to everyone uniformly.


"No one knows what the hell is going on," he said. "It's a buddy system and I don't' want to be a part of that."

After tenure recommendations go through departments, deans and UND administration, the State Board of Higher Education has the final authority to grant it and did so for 27 UND professors at an April 30 SBHE meeting.

Four more people were denied it and appealed, with Hightower, Kim Cowden and Katherine Scheurer reaching June settlement agreements totaling a combined $157,786 and ceasing employment at the university, UND spokesman Peter Johnson said in an email.

Hightower received $48,000, Cowden received $50,000 and Scheurer received $59,786, according to documents obtained by the Herald. All three also received health insurance coverage through Aug. 31.

The fourth person's appeal and name wouldn't be released by UND's legal counsel as of June 30 because it is ongoing, as it was initiated later than the other three, Johnson said.


The statistics stay static from the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2014, according to UND's Office of Institutional Research; 46 percent of instructional faculty were tenured and 16 percent were tenure track. In 2012, 44 percent were tenured and 17 percent were tenure track.

During the 2013-14 school year, Light said the University Senate started to take a look at promotion and tenure through information gathering sessions as well as college deans.


That same school year, a french professor's appeal to gain tenure once she was denied it saw media attention, but Light said the two occurrences weren't connected.

"A very normal thing for deans to do on an ongoing basis is to check in with one another on how do we handle our policies and procedures and how they're implemented inside our colleges," he said, having served as interim dean of the College of Nursing and Professional Disciplines at the time.

Last summer, Kelley took a 30-day leave to study tenure and then created a systemwide task force consisting of himself, Minot State President Steve Shirley and North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman to take a look at the concept.

A May report from Kelley to former Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen stated the group wanted the board to standardize definitions, use national standards and make sure any modifications are cohesive with the board's standing policy.

Upon Kelley's return, a Faculty Promotion, Tenure, and Evaluation Working Group was created at UND that Light serves as co-chairman of with Professor and Director of Essential Studies Ryan Zerr. That group consists of a variety of 14 professors and department chairmen and deans and has spent this past school year looking at tenure timeline, standardizing the process and being more clear about expectations.

Light said the group didn't meet much until this spring semester, and in the future they plan to focus on making changes to the faculty handbook and gather information from the campus community, though the method in which that will be done hasn't been chosen yet.

"It's about making sure how we do things maximizes the opportunity for alignment of our processes from the individual faculty member all the way up the system," he said.

A fix?


Light said post-tenure review will also be looked at, as requirements differ by college and department.

"The base line is you always have one ... but different colleges do post-tenure review differently," he said.

Light said they might decide that system is necessary or that it could need to be streamlined.

This could address some of Hightower's concerns, as he said many tenure requirements aren't clearly defined.

"The big thing was like, 'his research articles aren't high enough quality,' or, and they do this to a lot of people, 'he didn't have enough,' although they don't specify what high quality is," he said.

All three employee settlements, including Hightowers, include non-admission clauses stating the university did not act wrongfully against the employees.

Cowden and Scheurer did not respond to interview requests via email, but Hightower called his deal "a waste," as he used to really enjoy teaching and working with students. After his experience at UND, he said he plans to stay out of academia.

"To me justice has been done but for the others maybe not," Hightower said.

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