The End of Tenure in Wisconsin?

Last Friday afternoon the Wisconsin Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee declared war on the University of Wisconsin’s faculty.  By a vote of 12-4 the Committee approved an omnibus spending bill that would impose drastic budget cuts and, most important, eliminate tenure from state statute. The committee also approved adding new limits to the faculty role in shared governance and procedures for eliminating faculty members in good standing outside of financial exigency.  The bill now goes to the state’s Republican-dominated Senate and Assembly, where approval is expected later this month.

The supposed rationale behind the proposals is to give Wisconsin higher education managers the flexibility needed to deal with the budget cut, which the committee also voted to reduce to $250 million over two years from the $300 million originally proposed by Gov. Scott Walker, who is considered a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.  Earlier this year, Walker submitted a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the “Wisconsin Idea” and embedded in the state code  — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”  This bonehead proposal was not included in the omnibus bill.

Reaction to the committee vote among faculty members was immediate (for a good selection of quotes see yesterday’s article by Colleen Flaherty in InsideHigherEd).  In a powerful statement released Saturday, PROFS, a voluntary, non-profit membership organization of University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty, formed in 1976 by the Faculty Senate, declared that, if passed, the proposal would:

inflict lasting damage on a highly successful institution that was built and nurtured with major investments by Wisconsin taxpayers over a period of 167 years. The biennial budget cut of $250 million, while slightly reduced relative to the Governor’s original proposal, remains not only irresponsibly deep but irresponsibly rapid, forcing immediate and indiscriminate staffing reductions and program closures without the benefit of long-­‐term planning or prioritization. . . .

Indeed, Wisconsin is one of only six states that have approved or are considering reducing higher education funding for the next fiscal year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The paper notes that Wisconsin now spends less on higher education than all of its neighbors: Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Wisconsin spent $65,785 in taxpayer dollars per four-year degree granted in 2012-’13 — over $10,000 less than what other Midwestern states spent that year, and $9,300 less than the national average, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The state ranked second from the bottom among Midwestern states in how much taxpayer funding on average it put behind each student in public four-year universities in 2012-’13. Wisconsin spent $4,656 per full-time equivalency student, while Iowa spent the most — $7,447. The national average was $5,666.

Republican governors in Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana and Wisconsin, along with Democratic governors in Connecticut and West Virginia, have proposed reducing state support for higher education.  However, two of the other states facing the most aggressive cuts — Illinois and Louisiana — appear to be retreating. Some combination of raising taxes or rolling back tax credits appears to be part of the solution in Louisiana; raising taxes and reordering other spending is the focus now in Illinois.

The PROFS statement continues:

In addition to the profoundly damaging effects of the budget cut, it would be difficult to overstate how destructive and unnecessary the JFC’s proposed changes to tenure and shared governance are. Destructive because the changes will make it particularly difficult to attract and retain top faculty. Unnecessary because the changes to tenure and shared governance are not driven by any documented problem with the existing structures and procedures. On the contrary, tenure and shared governance have both been integral to the exceptional success of the UW over many decades, both as an educational institution and as an economic engine for Wisconsin. . . .

It is also abundantly clear that the changes to shared governance and tenure are non-­‐fiscal policy items that have no legitimate place in a budget bill. They do not solve any documentable problem at UW-­‐Madison, they are not based on any substantive analysis, and they will almost certainly inflict irreversible damage on the university.

To be sure, according to the motion, the fate of tenure would be up to the university system’s Board of Regents, which has expressed its interest in preserving the policy. In a joint statement Friday, Ray Cross, system president, and Regina Millner, board vice president, reaffirmed that position.  “We are pleased that the action proposed today by the [committee] keeps shared governance language in state statute, and we are reviewing other proposed changes related to shared governance. As tenure was not retained in statute, we will move to incorporate it into board policies immediately,” the statement said.

But many UW faculty members have criticized the statement as cowing to the legislature and not sticking up for faculty.  And even if the regents reaffirm tenure, they say, it’s still weakened in losing its legal status.  And some faculty leaders criticized UW administrators and board members for not lobbying against the changes.

Even if the Regents preserve tenure, the restrictions imposed by the proposed legislation certainly weaken tenure protections dramatically to the extent that, by AAUP standards, it could be close to nonexistent.  Here is what the bill says about tenure:

Tenure: Approve the Governor’s recommendation to delete the definition of a “tenure appointment” and language establishing the conditions under which the Board of Regents may grant a tenure appointment to a faculty member. Delete current law specifying that a person who has been granted tenure may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. In addition, delete the definition of “probationary appointment” and provisions limiting the length of such an appointment to seven years.

And here is what the bill says about shared governance:

Shared governance, role of faculty: Modify current law to specify that the faculty of each institution would have the primary responsibility for advising the Chancellor regarding academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters subject to the responsibilities and powers of the Board, President, and Chancellor. In addition, modify current law to specify that the faculty of each institution must ensure that faculty in academic disciplines related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are adequately represented in the faculty organizational structure. Delete current law specifying that the faculty of each institution be vested with responsibility for the immediate governance of such institution and actively participate in institutional policy development.

And lastly, here is some of what the bill says about layoffs:

Layoff due to budget or program decision: Modify current law to specify that the Board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program  discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists as under current law.

Specify that the Board may layoff or terminate a tenured faculty member, or layoff or terminate a probationary faculty member prior to the end of his or her appointment, when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.

These passages are followed by a lengthy description of the meaning of layoff, seniority, and appeal processes that provide some protections for faculty members.  But the vague language (what, one might ask, is program “redirection?”) offers little comfort.

The proposals come in the context of a broader assault on public education in the state.  A K-12 omnibus motion by the Joint Committee on Finance, approved shortly before approval of the higher ed bill, would deregulate licensing standards for middle and high school teachers across the state. The legislation being rolled into the biennial budget would require the Department of Public Instruction to license anyone with a bachelor’s degree in any subject to teach English, social studies, mathematics, and science.   It would also require the education department to issue a teaching permit to people who have not — repeat have not — earned a bachelor’s degree, or potentially a high school diploma, to teach in any subject area, excluding the core subjects of mathematics, English, science, and social studies.

Faculty members in Wisconsin have a fight on their hands.  We should all support them.

11 thoughts on “The End of Tenure in Wisconsin?

  1. We in Wisconsin urgently need the help of everyone who cares about the preservation of tenure, anywhere. Write to the Wisconsin Board of Regents at: Urge them to write regents’ policy that counteracts the Wisconsin state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee’s bill which not only eliminates tenure from statute but also adds sweeping new opportunities to layoff or terminate tenured faculty at the discretion of chancellors, system administration, and the Board of Regents, such that this would in fact eliminate tenure in all but name only. Support sanctioning the UW System and the Wisconsin state government if the Board of Regents does not do what is necessary to counteract the current legislative undoing of tenure in this state.

  2. One would think that Wisconsin were at the opposite end of the Mississippi. What a tragic loss to both the ideals and the reality of American higher education. And to gain what?

    • To stop people from thinking and to do so by turning academics into bridled experts who work on powerful people’s problems, preferably by the hour. The excuse is that the market alone is what is good for America, with the remarkable conclusion that there are no other sources of public good. The 21st century has changed, “What’s good for GM is good for America,” into “What’s good for the powerful is good for America.”

      We all have to address the level of public resentment toward higher education that allows this sort of utilitarian degradation of the public good and the intellectual commons.

  3. We have a petition to the Board of Regents asking them to preserve tenure by publicly renouncing their new powers to dismiss faculty for “budget or program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection” Over 1,200 concerned people from Wisconsin, over 40 US states and 16 countries have signed. Hundreds have left thoughtful comments. You can add your support here:

  4. Pingback: More from PROFS on the Assault on Tenure in Wisconsin | The Academe Blog

  5. Well, the Wikipedia entry for “tenure” says:

    “The period since 1972 has seen a steady decline in the percentage of college and university teaching positions in the US that are either tenured or tenure-track. United States Department of Education statistics put the combined tenured/tenure-track rate at 56% for 1975, 46.8% for 1989, and 31.9% for 2005. That is to say, by the year 2005, 68.1% of US college teachers were neither tenured nor eligible for tenure; a full 48% of teachers that year were part-time employees.”

    – the pressures on state budgets (Medicaid is just going to keep getting more and more expensive, gang);

    – the apparent inevitability (for a variety of reasons) of large annual cost increases for higher education in the US;

    – many years of consistently demonstrated unwillingness on the part of state legislatures and taxpayers to increase (or even maintain) annual funding levels for their “public” colleges and universities; and

    (most important)

    – the raw deals to which part-time, “adjunct” faculty members are subject,

    perhaps it is time to re-think the rules for guaranteed lifetime employment for tenured faculty at public colleges and universities in the US (no matter how brilliant and creative they may be in generating new knowledge).

    It would be good to see this very elite class of very intelligent people relying less on tradition and more on reason in the search for ways to deal with these very difficult problems.

  6. Tenure, according to the AAUP (and almost all colleges and universities) does not guarantee lifetime employment. It simply ensures that a tenured faculty member can be dismissed only for cause (e.g., dereliction of duty, etc.) and only after a hearing before a representative committee of faculty peers. Two additional exceptions: dismissal due to bona fide financial exigency — a crisis that threatens the academic mission of the institution and cannot be resolved by lesser means — and program discontinuance.

    • You’ve described the current (and traditional) rules that determine when employment may be discontinued. My post suggests only that circumstances are now such that perhaps it’s time to re-think those rules to see if there might be better ways to proceed for all parties concerned.

    • The traditional rules governing continuing employment for tenured faculty are as you describe: if those rules are followed, expectation of lifetime employment follows. My post suggests only that circumstances are now such that perhaps it’s time to re-think those rules and find ways to change them so that the interests of all parties are served.

  7. Pingback: The 25 Most Read Posts to the Academe Blog in 2015 | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.