Bill sparks debate on faculty rights and tenure in higher ed

With only two proponents on record, the Tenure with Responsibilities Bill faced stiff opposition in the North Dakota Legislature from academics, students and experts during its first hearing.

North Dakota Capitol
North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck.
Forum News Service file photo

BISMARCK — Controversial legislation in North Dakota that would codify new responsibilities for tenured professors and make it easier for university presidents to fire them is drawing widespread opposition across the state and country.

The North Dakota state Legislature’s House Government and Veterans Affairs committee held its first hearing last week on the new emergency bill, House Bill 1446 , for tenured professors at two public colleges in Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College.

Out of the 45 testimonies regarding the bill, only two individuals, House Majority Leader Representative Mike Lefor and Dickinson State University President Steve Easton, expressed their support for it.

Easton expressed his continued support for the Tenure with Responsibilities Bill. He said he believes that requiring tenured faculty members to be productive and accountable is a positive change and that the bill provides a means for university presidents to hold all faculty members accountable, including those with tenure, noting that the bill will encourage unproductive faculty members to improve or risk losing their jobs if they don't make changes.

"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," Easton said.


President Steve Easton of Dickinson State University supports the Tenure with Responsibilities Bill.
(Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

Easton also mentioned that most workers face the possibility of consequences from their supervisors if they are not productive and that it is unfair to exempt tenured faculty members from this type of widespread review. He emphasized his support for the bill and the importance of accountability for all members of the university workforce.

Opponents of the bill argue that it threatens academic freedom and undermines the stability and security of tenured positions, which are a hallmark of higher education, at a time when the university system is in desperate need of attracting and retaining professors.

"The bill usurps the power and authority granted to the State Board of Higher Education by the citizens of the state in the ND Constitution," Daniel Rice testified. Rice is the former Dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of North Dakota and Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership. "The bill would eliminate the due process rights of faculty at the two campuses."

Alexander Wagner, a physicist and professor at North Dakota State University, also spoke out against the bill, calling it "ill-conceived" and lacking in understanding of the workings of higher education institutions.

"If NDSU had offered me a faculty position without tenure protections I can state with certainty that I would not have entertained this offer," Wagner said. “The simple abolishment of tenure will inevitably lead to a significant reduction of faculty quality with significant negative impacts on higher education in North Dakota.”

Adelyn Emter, Chief of Staff for the North Dakota Student Association, also testified in opposition to the bill, citing concerns over its potential impact on the institutional accreditation status of NDUS schools.

"The significant negative impact on faculty retention would critically disadvantage North Dakota institutions by failing to provide faculty with competitive career opportunities in the American workforce," she testified. "The North Dakota Student Association is dedicated to ensuring that students have a voice at the table in policy that affects higher education."

Eric James Murphy, a representative from District 43 in Grand Forks and a faculty member at UND, argued that the salesmanship approach to education in the bill would be “short-sighted.”


Lefor defended his bill, saying that the primary goal of the bill — which he calls the "Tenure with Responsibilities Act" — remains to ensure the improved accountability and efficiency within the North Dakota University System.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott said in his submitted testimony to the committee that the higher education board has not taken a stance on the bill.

The House Government and Veterans Affairs committee has yet to take action on the bill.

James B. Miller, Jr. is the Editor of The Dickinson Press in Dickinson, North Dakota. He strives to bring community-driven, professional and hyper-local focused news coverage of southwest North Dakota.
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