University of Minnesota physics Professor Thomas Walsh doesn't fit the mold of a rabble-rouser. For his 13 years on the faculty, the 55-year-old physicist has studied particles that hold the universe together. But now his own universe is being threatened, and Walsh is fighting back by trying to unionize fellow faculty members. The menace: a proposal by university administrators to weaken tenure--professors' guarantee of lifetime employment and, they argue, academic freedom. "Unionization of the faculty is a last resort, but it's one we're prepared to go for," says Walsh.
So much for the ivory tower. This Minneapolis/St. Paul university campus has become a battleground in an emerging national debate over what may be the last secure job in America: the tenured professorship. Some Minnesota state legislators, regents, and administrators want the right to give tenured professors performance reviews, reduce their salaries, or let them go if their departments are closed. "We need a clear-eyed view of whether tenure is still appropriate," says University of Minnesota Regent Jean Keffeler. Professors such as Walsh, though, worry about losing colleagues to cost-cutting. They also believe that tenure is essential to academic freedom because it enables academics to pursue unpopular research topics in the face of potential political pressure.
Academics and university officials across the country are watching Minnesota closely. Faculty senates at the University of California at Berkeley and Rutgers University in New Jersey have passed motions condemning Minnesota's action. "Tenure has been attacked before, and it's survived," says a spokeswoman for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington, D.C. "But this is a serious threat."
The move against tenure is being driven as universities struggle with high costs. In 1997, a new Florida State University campus in Fort Myers will open with no tenure-track positions. And two years ago, Vermont's Bennington College sacked one-third of its faculty and abolished tenure altogether in a radical cost-cutting move.
MAD PROFESSOR. Other universities have reduced the ranks of tenured professors by attrition. As professors retire, their posts often are filled with part-timers who receive no benefits and never come up for tenure. Some 47% of university faculty now are part-timers, vs. 32% in 1980, according to AAUP.
By contrast, 87% of the faculty at the University of Minnesota is tenured. And that concerns Regent Keffeler, who kicked off the debate in 1995 by asking for productivity statistics on the faculty. As a compromise, the university's faculty senate has proposed a revised tenure code that includes regular performance reviews. But it won't budge on layoffs and pay cuts.
If regents don't agree to the compromise, Walsh expects to see a dramatic pickup in support for a faculty union. Already, he has 500 of the 1,000 signature cards he needs to call for a union election. If that happens, resolving the tenure debate could make discovering the origins of the universe look easy.