Tenureless U: at Florida Gulf Coast University, tenure is out and multi-year contracts are in

FORT MYERS, Fla.

The narrow band of habitable land between the
Gulf of Mexico and Florida’s Everglades is where a band of 150 pioneers
have staked their claims.

But on this academic frontier in southwest Florida, one of the basic
foundations of American academia is out of favor. At Florida Gulf Coast
University (FGCU) – the nation’s youngest university – tenure is out
and multiyear contracts are in.

On opening day in late August, the only faculty with tenure or on a
tenure-track were the thirty who had transferred to FGCU after the
University of South Florida (USF) closed its Fort Myers branch to make
way for the new university.

It’s the other 120 faculty – those who moved to Fort Myers, often
from tenured jobs at established schools – who have taken the biggest
risk. They are accepting three- to five-year renewable contracts, and
they know that the United Faculty of Florida – the union that
represents them – isn’t ecstatic about their arrival.

Under pressure from the state Board of Regents to help reform tenure
at the state’s nine other universities, the union agreed to allow FGCU
to have multiyear contracts. But it doesn’t necessarily endorse the
idea, saying multiyear contracts may make it hard for the university to
attract and keep top faculty members because tenure remains popular
throughout academia.

“We decided an experiment [at FGCU] would be appropriate,” said
University of North Florida Professor Tom Mongar, the union’s
president. “But we’re going to go back and look at the results.”

Indeed, the world is watching FGCU. But so far, there isn’t much to see.

For all the hoopla, the tenureless hiring did not appear to affect
the university’s applicant pool – some positions netted 200 applicants
– or its enrollment of 2,700 students, which is 200 more than
anticipated. The numbers for both the applicants’ pool and enrollment
probably benefitted from the slow academic job market and Florida’s
growing wave of high school graduates.

“The problems we had recruiting faculty were the same problems all
Florida [public] universities have,” said Suzanne Richter, FGCU vice
president for academic affairs. “We couldn’t pay them enough.”

Richter said the problem was particularly acute for minority
faculty, such as a Black nursing professor from New York who turned
FGCU down after her home institution offered her a $5,000 raise.

What the school does offer, however, is a pioneer spirit, something that appealed to many faculty who were tenured elsewhere.

“My thought is tenure isn’t the reason I became a professor,” said
business professor Hudson Rogers, a native of Trinidad who had tenure
at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. “I’m here because not many
people get a chance to say, ‘We started a university.'”

So far, it’s not affecting faculty governance either, said Associate
Professor Thomas Harrington, one of the USF tenured faculty now on
board at FGCU. He’ll serve as the interim faculty senate president
until elections are held in November.

“We’ve made sure, in setting up the governance system, that you know
if someone is a full professor or not but you have no idea what their
contract is,” Harrington said. “From my perspective, the press has made
this much more of an issue than we have on campus. If it wasn’t for
reporters calling me, I wouldn’t be talking about it.”

The biggest test, faculty members agree, will come when it’s time to renew faculty members’ contracts.

“I’m one of those people who believe that if a person performs well
they are going to do well whether they are tenured or on a multiyear
appointment,” Harrington said. “I know there are people who don’t
believe that, but I do.

“We really won’t know until next year,” he admitted. “If we find out
eighty faculty are fired, I might give you a different answer. But I
don’t think that will be the case.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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