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Letter: Misconceptions about faculty tenure

Gov. Doug Burgum and news columnists have recently argued that higher education has to be ready for the change coming and ready to embrace this change. Recently the governor (in an interview with Forbes magazine) went so far as to suggest that universities resist change due to a sense of entitlement, tenure and a lack of existential fear about going out of business.

Unfortunately the governor and others critics of higher education in North Dakota have been quite vague on several key points. First they have not specified what changes higher education needs to address. Second, they have not specified how higher education will benefit from addressing these changes. Third, what makes the governor presume that higher education has not been changing and will not continue to change as dictated by best practices in the field? Universities are in an ongoing process of evaluation and change all the time, although it may not be evident to those not working in the field. The idea that tenure is a blanket of protection for all faculty is a common misconception; in fact, all tenure means is that there needs to be a stated reason for releasing a faculty member. Faculty, including tenured faculty, are let go much more often than people might suppose. They can be fired for cause, such as a violation of the law or of university policy, or released due to a reduction in force.

Should all proposed change not be deliberated and carefully evaluated before implemented? That is the function of university (faculty) senates that the governor seems to disparage in his interview with Forbes magazine.

Furthermore, many social institutions are highly respected precisely because of the long-standing "traditions" that have served them for generations. Such institutions are only altered after careful consideration and rigorous debate.

Clearly higher education can always improve and better serve our students. However, these improvements will come from our own careful self-evaluations that are routinely conducted on campuses across North Dakota, careful evaluation by national accreditation agencies along with well-reasoned and carefully deliberated changes presented by the public and the private sector.

Varney lives in Dickinson, N.D.

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