When it comes to labor organizing, professors are known for enlisting their minds, not their muscles. But today at the University of Minnesota, an unusual union drive is under way among the PhD set.
Some 500 professors have endorsed the idea of forming a union as part of a rebellion against a university attempt to limit teacher tenure.
The outcome of the fight may set the tone for similar disputes at colleges across the country.
"There is an intense sense of frustration among faculty - they are saying, 'What is the administration doing?' " says Thomas Walsh, a physics professor and organizing leader.
Some faculty members say suggested changes in the system of lifetime appointments for teachers would undermine the university's academic freedom, prestige, and ability to attract blue-ribbon professors. For their part, regents and administrators seeking revisions say a new tenure code would help the university overcome severe financial and administrative challenges.
Minnesota is one of at least four state universities that have recently sought to cut costs by diluting the traditional commitment to lifetime jobs for professors. Tenure is one of the hottest issues in academia today.
The move by universities to limit lifetime jobs is rooted in deep cost-cutting by state legislatures. Moreover, in an era of widespread job insecurity, the professors may face an uphill battle in trying to persuade the public to support the guarantee of lifelong "ivory tower" jobs, academics say.
Already, the proportion of tenured professors among university faculty has shrunk nationwide, from 62 percent a decade ago to 58 percent today, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington.
"People keep scratching at tenure, they always have, and when times are tough financially there is more scratching than there is at other times," says Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary at AAUP.
Although several campuses across the Unites States are scrutinizing tenure programs, few debates have been as public and prickly as the one at the normally placid University of Minnesota.
"This unconsidered, rash launching into arguments about the tenure code in Minnesota has badly hurt the university," says Mr. Walsh. The charged dispute lies at the core of scholarly performance and has been called "academe's version of the abortion question."
Academics nationwide - but especially at public schools - are anxiously watching the controversy. Faculty senates at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. and at the University of California at Berkeley have condemned the tenure-limiting initiatives at Minnesota.
Some of the most resented proposals would intensify evaluations of tenured professors, enable the university to lay off professors if their departments are shut down, and require that tenure protect only a part of total compensation.
The controversy flared largely because of financial troubles at the university's Academic Health Center. State legislators early this year made an extraordinary $8.6 million appropriation to the center under the condition that the university alter the tenure code. The university's Board of Regents indicated it wants a new tenure system in operation by the fall.
Faculty members primarily oppose a revision because they say it would erode academic freedom. Professors lacking a secure job would shy from potential censure and forgo bold, leading-edge research, opponents say.
They also argue that tenure revision would hamper the ability of the university to lure and keep top-notch professors. All other things being equal, the best scholars would sign on to universities featuring more liberal tenure codes.
"Minnesota would be in a very disfavorable situation in terms of recruitment if it was not able to offer tenure," says Mr. Kurland.
Despite the sharp differences over tenure, there are hints of some emerging common ground. Some regents and administrators have welcomed tenure revisions proposed last month by the faculty senate.
"I think the senate recommendations are positive and constructive," says Regent Jean Keffeler, an outspoken proponent of a revamped tenure code.
But she did not endorse two of the most controversial suggestions by the senate. And Ms. Keffeler says her views do not necessarily reflect that of the entire board.