Profs oppose possible tenure change at William Mitchell

John Radsan (left) and Carl Moy
John Radsan (left) and Carl Moy, both tenured professors at William Mitchell College of Law, pictured here on April 2, 2015.
Sasha Aslanian | MPR News

Two professors from William Mitchell College of Law have filed a complaint to try to stop the Board of Trustees from using a planned merger to eliminate tenured faculty members.

They're concerned the board will use plans to combine with Hamline University's School of Law as a trigger for involuntary layoffs.

In a complaint filed Friday in Ramsey County District Court, two William Mitchell professors sought to hold the school to its tenure agreement. Currently, tenured faculty can be fired for only two reasons: failure or refusal to perform the job, and financial crisis.

A potential change to the Tenure Code would allow the school to dismiss a tenured faculty member if the college plans to combine with another law school.

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In February, facing stiff competition and declining enrollment, William Mitchell and Hamline announced plans to combine law schools. The new Mitchell | Hamline School of Law will be headquartered at William Mitchell in St. Paul, pending approval from the American Bar Association.

John Radsan, one of the faculty members bringing the complaint, has taught at the school for more than a decade. He said the board should not rewrite the rules.

"I don't want us to come across as whining about this," he said. "We understand that we have no insulation from the ups and downs of the market. If we don't have enough students, if we're not serving their interests, the interest of the institution, then there are downsides. There are mechanisms that are in the tenure code already. But what is very important to us is that if we're going to work at a law school, we want the law school to be a model for the rule of law."

William Mitchell has 28 tenured professors. Hamline has fewer.

William Mitchell Dean Eric Janus said the combined law school won't need as many professors.

"We've consistently said that we hope to do it voluntarily and we still do," he said. "And we're just taking some steps to make sure that if we can't do it voluntarily, we can achieve the necessary reductions."

Janus said William Mitchell needs to trim about four tenured positions, and Hamline will cut a similar percentage.

Robert O'Neil, a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities in Washington, said there's no clear rule about what happens to tenured positions in a merger. "There is relatively little guidance with respect to mergers, major mergers," he said.

O'Neil recalled the 1967 merger of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University in Ohio, where there were duplicate positions in the two schools of architecture. As a result, he said, some of the tenured faculty were let go.

"The American Association of University of Professors did ... acknowledge the propriety of dropping or terminating a few of what were deemed essentially redundant faculty," he said.

O'Neil said that could happen here too.

The AAUP doesn't have specific numbers on the decline of tenured positions in laws schools, but reports that the percentage of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty in higher education generally has declined by more than half over the past 40 years.

Carl Moy, the other William Mitchell professor bringing the complaint, said the dispute over tenure isn't just about self-interest.

He said William Mitchell's board members, most of whom are alumni, don't understand the crucial role tenured faculty play in guiding an academic program. He said the corporate attorneys serving on the board "have a background that comes from the business community and corporate community and they have gone through mergers and so on in that kind of an environment."

Moy said such board members have "difficulty distinguishing tenured faculty ... from senior employees in corporations. And they see the corporate model where ... the corporate governance structure then just informs people, including very senior people. You just get pink slips."

Janus said the board could take up the amendment to the Tenure Code next month if voluntary reductions don't succeed. He said the schools are planning and hoping ABA approval comes as early as Aug. 1.

The complaint