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Tenure shouldn’t fall victim to Regents’ budget struggles

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 02, 2011 7:20 AM

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After tireless years of research, at least six years’ worth of teaching, and immeasurable preparation and planning, the best and the brightest in the professorial sphere are granted the holy grail of teaching: tenure.

Yet tenure is under scrutiny again just a month after the UI updated its tenure-evaluation procedure and just moments after the state Board of Regents approved the revamped (and much-improved) system.

Regent Craig Lang, questioning how tenure at the three regents’ universities compounds school expenses, quipped that tenure offers virtual lifelong job security while weighing the importance of professors with different lengths of experience equally.

Regardless of budgetary shortfalls, however, it’s important to maintain the tradition of tenure. Tenure shields critical professors from retribution and helps to maintain an independent academia; if the regents do examine Iowa’s tenure policies, it should only be to insure that tenure review has sufficient teeth to keep professors on their game.

The regents are examining tenure policies, as evidenced by a last week vote to instate more stringent guidelines for review. Under the current system, tenured faculty undergo yearly evaluations by departmental officers and peer reviews every five years.

Some regents, however, want more.

“When we are trying to reduce costs of the universities, and you have 60 percent of expenses on auto pilot … it’s not the best way to increase efficiency of the university and promote the environment of learning,” Lang told the regents on April 28.

Operating costs at the UI come out to more than $618 million per year — which sounds weighty until one considers that, in 2009-10, the UI itself added $6 billion to the state’s economy. The university also saw its assets increase by 9 percent in that time.

The UI expends only 48.7 percent of its total budget on paid salaries, and just 39.1 percent of that is on faculty (all faculty — not just tenured professors). In the fall 2010 semester, there were 1,596 tenure-track faculty at the UI, and in 2010-11, the total number of tenured professors at all three regents’ institutions was down to 2,719.

According to the UI Operations Manual, there are numerous instances under which tenured professors may have their status removed. One of these circumstances is “[f]inancial exigency … defined as a financial crisis that exists or is imminent and that, if not corrected,” by termination of tenured faculty, threatens the livelihood of the university. If the UI were in such dire straits as some are suggesting, there are policies that regents can invoke.

No data are available regarding how many faculty members per year are denied tenure or demoted from tenure status. In this respect, there is a certain air of irrevocable job security. The new protocols should address any issues; if not, the regents would be justified in requesting higher standards for continuation of tenure.

The regents are misrepresenting their financial crunch as a direct result of badly managed public university budgets. But tenured professors’ salaries are not the problem here. Given that the regents have approved a 5 percent increase in UI tuition for the 2011-12 year, and a 5 percent increase in board and room costs, it is patently ludicrous for members to seek further sacrifices from the UI.

Tenure should not be an untouchable subject, but in light of the UI’s recently updated system coupled with net asset increases over the years, the regents should seek out other sources of over-spending, like administrative positions and salaries, for review.


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