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GRAND FORKS — The State Board of Higher Education approved a policy change Thursday which would cut down the required timeline for dismissing tenured faculty in the North Dakota University System.

Discussion of the change during the board’s monthly meeting hinged on themes of dire straits for state appropriations and rapid change in the context of an increasingly technology-driven economy. Opponents of the policy shift warn that reducing the timeline is perceived as a shot at tenure itself, an issue they say could hurt NDUS recruitment efforts and employee morale.

Board member Greg Stemen said use of the policy would be “an absolute last resort” for presidents of NDUS institutions.

“It is a financial issue,” said Stemen, who introduced recommendations from a board subcommittee devoted solely to the tenure policy. “What we wanted to do was come up with things we thought were appropriate with our system and make efforts to understand, realize differences amongst the 11 (NDUS) institutions.”

The NDUS tenure policy previously required the state’s higher education institutions to provide tenured faculty members with written notice of dismissal at least one year before termination.

With the newly approved changes, that timeline would be cut down to a minimum notice period of 90 days, provided that the board has declared financial exigency, which is defined broadly as insolvency. That required timeline is expanded to 180 days in the event of a financial situation that isn’t as dire as exigency but still involves loss of legislative appropriation — much like the current budgetary scenario.

The original yearlong timeline is still maintained in the new proposal, but in a narrowed context. Institutions of higher education would be required to give the minimum 12 months of forward notice to faculty before termination caused by “loss of institutional or program enrollment, consolidation of academic units or program areas, or elimination of courses.”

Providing the state’s economy sees some improvement, at least part of the change could be a temporary measure. The policy was written with a sunset clause which would revert the 180-day timeline back to a year on or before June 30, 2019.

Maintaining academic integrity

Board member Don Morton said he believed most NDUS schools wouldn’t have to cut their notice periods back to the new minimum level, though he added that “some of the smaller schools that just don’t have the great numbers, it might be a stretch for them.”

He said it wasn’t yet known which schools that might specifically include and said the policy was intended to provide flexibility for campus leadership.

Nick Hacker, a fellow board member, also emphasized the policy is elective and open for the colleges and universities to choose longer notification periods. He also said the shift was “not an attack on tenure.”

“This board grants tenure — we’re on the same team,” said Hacker. “This is a discussion about financial stability and adapting to economic realities.”

Outside readings of the change are less clear-cut. Board member Kari Reichert said the perception of the move follows a different story.

“We can say over and over that this isn’t an attack on tenure, but everyone’s interpreting it that way,” said Reichert, who questioned the origins of the policy change and provided the sole vote against the approval of its second reading and passage.

“It’s concerning to me because what we hear from faculty and administrators is that ‘We don’t want this,’” she said. “We hear it could jeopardize the ability to recruit, raise morale. … So what are we trying to accomplish?”

During the first reading of the change during last month’s SBHE meeting, an open comment session drew opposition from faculty representatives at all 11 NDUS schools. On Wednesday, University of North Dakota Provost Tom DiLorenzo told attendees of an open forum on campus that he and UND President Mark Kennedy were opposed to the move.

Though public comment was less widespread at Thursday’s meeting, faculty members from multiple NDUS institutions still opposed the change.

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Ernst Pijning, a Minot State University professor who serves as the board’s non-voting faculty representative, said changes to the tenure policy could cause “irreparable damage” to the university system.

Though Pijning acknowledged a scarcity of resources for higher education — a condition he described as a problematic result of decisions in the state Legislature — he said the tenure policy went beyond accommodating financial hardship and into the realm of “going into what tenure is all about.”

“We want to preserve our institutions, but do it in the way that we can maintain our academic integrity,” he said.

Pijning was joined in opposing the policy change by NDSU Provost Beth Ingram and UND professor Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, who spoke on behalf of the University Senate faculty. Ingram said the matter of perception would be carried beyond North Dakota, potentially harming the brand of the state system.

NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott spoke in favor of the revised policy before it went to vote, citing rapidly changing economic trends both in the nation and the state. For North Dakota specifically, Hagerott described the fiscal situation as potentially “unprecedented” in its severity. He argued national policies outlining best practices for tenure are written in line with “last resort” conditions.

“The executives running these enterprises need to be one step ahead of the last resort,” said Hagerott.

Med school renovation

The SBHE cleared the way Thursday for UND to use $3.3 million in existing funding to renovate the former home of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Those renovations would update the space for use by the UND College of Arts and Sciences, which currently occupies more than 25 percent of the building and is in the process of moving its largest departments into the facility. The primary source of renovations would be an interior reconstruction to build out public clinics for psychology and counseling programs.

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