North Dakota bill proposes tenure reform process like Florida

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

Editor’s Note: The original article inaccurately described the whistleblowing concerns surrounding House Bill 1446. We have updated the article to present more information about these specific concerns and included a quote from Eric Grabowsky.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made headlines when he announced a five-year review plan for tenured college professors, and it appears that states like North Dakota are following suit. A Republican state lawmaker, House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, introduced a bill to reform the state’s tenure system.

North Dakota newspaper Inforum reported on the consideration of the bill in the state legislature.

House Bill 1446, if it gets through the legislative process and becomes law, would create a pilot program to evaluate tenured faculty members by the following standards:

  • Ability to generate tuition or grant revenue,
  • Participates in activities aligned with the university’s interests,
  • Follows policies and procedures,
  • Effectively teaches and advises students.

The bill also proposed that university presidents have the power to review the performance of tenured faculty members at any time and the authority to not renew contracts if the professors do not meet university standards. It does not permit a second review or appeal for non-renewed tenure contracts, while protecting university presidents and administrators from lawsuits or complaints if they recommend non-renewal.

This bill offers slightly different provisions than Florida’s tenure reform law, which puts tenured professors on a five-year review window instead of an on-demand review.

Faculty members criticize the bill as an “anti-whistleblower bill in disguise” and a political attempt to restrict academic freedom of faculty members. An associate professor of communications at Dickinson State University, Eric Grabowsky, said that the bill is a threat to academics. He said, “From my point of view as a citizen, I encourage the public not to fall for House Bill 1446. Debates about tenure and the scope of tenure are legitimate. Colleges and universities need to be good stewards of resources.” Grawbowsky added, “People in North Dakota should know that there are sometimes circumstances in which tenured faculty are uniquely situated to highlight and discuss problems involving academic integrity, overall management, retaliatory behavior or faulty procurement. Over the years, tenured faculty have raised important concerns regarding these types of areas across the North Dakota University System, including at Dickinson State University.”

Grabowsky explained his position in an email exchange with Accuracy in Academia:

“In North Dakota, the public should not be uninterested in issues pertaining to tenure, especially when tax dollars are involved. However, as a citizen, I am encouraging people to reject House Bill 1446. Necessary improvements in higher education within North Dakota have involved and will involve tenured faculty bringing sunshine to academic, managerial, and financial problems at our colleges and universities. Even with the removal of the disparagement aspect of the bill, which Representative Lefor has discussed, the overall HB 1446 framework contains other mechanisms that could be utilized for retaliation and roadblocking with respect to whistleblowers.”

In contrast, Lefor said, “We as legislators quiz the university presidents on cost and represent the taxpayers, and we want, just like in the private sector, highly motivated and productive employees.” He continued, “We demand accountability and want the best for our institutions.” He added, “There shouldn’t be any agency in state government that shouldn’t have accountability for job performance, without including different committees and so forth to determine whether or not they should improve their performance. This isn’t about firing people, it’s about accountability … and that’s reasonable.”

Lefor’s argument may ring true for conservatives because data on tenured professors’ non-renewals or firings are rare to find or document. Conservatives have clamored, for years, to hold tenured, politically-biased (often progressive or left-wing) professors accountable for their actions while being paid by taxpayers.

He also signaled a willingness to change parts of the bill if opponents were willing to come to him and discuss their concerns. “If that is the major issue, that is something I’m willing to discuss to get everyone on the same page, working hard, developing the university and moving it forward,” said Lefor, “If there are issues then I’m willing to meet with people and amend the bill.”

At least one university president in North Dakota agreed with the main part of Lefor’s bill proposal because he had a role in crafting the proposal. Dickinson State University President Steve Easton said he supports the bill because of accountability concerns. “I believe that it is important to turn tenure from what it has unfortunately become as a practical matter, a lifetime appointment absent outrageous behavior, to a job that, like almost all other jobs, carries with it certain duties and responsibilities that are enforceable by supervisors,” he said, “The bill makes the duties and responsibilities enforceable by permitting the president and the administration of a higher education institution the authority to ensure that tenured faculty are meeting their duties and responsibilities.”

But Easton did not agree with the small scale of the bill, where it limited the pilot program to two higher education institutions and the restriction of complaints against college administrators.

As far as next steps, the bill will go through the state’s legislative process. However, as Grabowsky informed Accuracy in Academia, Lefor is attempting to pass his bill proposal by “using emergency language for more immediate implementation” that would create a more difficult threshold to pass.