Some Remarks on the UW-System Board of Regents Tenure Policy Task Force

By Elena Levy-Navarro

The three chapters of the AAUP — UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, and UW-Whitewater — have sent to the Board of Regents Tenure Policy Task Force (TPTF) annotated copies of the two policy documents that were written by the chair’s staff. When I consider all of the actions of the Board’s TPTF, I remind myself that the board could have easily chosen to pass Wisconsin Statute 36.13, “Faculty Tenure and Probationary Appointments,” into its permanent policy. They needn’t have made the policy elapse so as to establish in its place a task force that will design two policies: a post-tenure review that will collect data to be used to layoff “unsatisfactory” faculty members by means of a “grievance process” and in a “faculty layoff” policy. Through a bureaucratic structure that operates in a top-down manner, faculty and academic staff positions could be terminated for the ill-defined “program and budget changes.”

A lot needs to be said about the activities of the Board’s TPTF: that it moves forward impervious to any meaningful opposition, that it has from the beginning specified that the regents would author and take up the final policy (and thus that its hand-picked members will not have a vote on whatever policy is written), that the policies have been authored by the chair and his staff, and that it has been highly — and even to some minds expertly — managed from beginning to end. Perhaps most importantly, for those who are concerned for the preservation of real shared governance, shared governance is effectively absent from the process. I will leave for another time an exploration of how a bureaucratic management structure is inconsistent with shared governance, that within the terms of the bureaucracy, “shared governance” will be promoted over “faculty governance,” and that “shared governance” becomes merely what it has become in this second version of the draft policies: a “shared governance process,” in which real governance — that is, the exercise of power through a broadly conceived political power (in the Aristotelian sense) — is replaced with a bureaucratic mechanism (“Layoff policy” 2). In literary criticism, we spoke of the death of the author and its replacement by the “author function.” What we’re witnessing now is the death of shared governance and its replacement by the shared governance function.

For now, I want to give two warnings to my colleagues, which, in effect, have to do with refusing to fall for crisis politics. We are certainly in a manufactured crisis, manufactured through repeated budget cuts and through legislative changes, among other things. I am most interested in how crisis thinking is manufactured by the strategic evocation of certain bogeymen and how just the mention of their names — or even allusion to them — sometimes seems to render us passive. Certainly, I have seen some of us — myself included — utter the names, as if that explains it all. These are “the legislature” and “state law,” two bogeymen whose very utterance is designed to frighten us into submission — or worse yet, into active participation in our own demise.

We need to stop accepting that the legislature is behind these efforts. They simply aren’t. How can I say that? Because “the legislature” isn’t a uniform singular entity, even among the Republican majority. I know what some will say. Well, “the legislature” and closed door meetings were raised as the reason why post-tenure review in the form it is being written needs to be adopted. (It had to be evoked because there was no apparent reason why this form of post-tenure review needed to be created and implemented, since the reason given — that the policies need to be adopted so that they are consistent with the ill-defined changes in the law did not pertain to post-tenure review, which is nowhere mentioned in the law.) I’m not even sure if there is such a bogeyman, but if there is, we need to know the whos, the whats, and the wheres. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask the specific individuals if they did, in fact, demand such changes, and if so, when and in what way? It would be good to know how many of them there may or may not be. These are the kind of questions that need to be answered, and we should stop repeating something we don’t really know is true, especially given the potential consequences of repeating it.

Second, we need to stop talking about “state law” as if it is a homogenous entity with a singular meaning that can be known and thus used against us. Relatedly, we need to stop repeating that it requires this and that action, especially when that action is directly against our interests. I am guilty of this myself. I have sometimes worried that all my work on “the law” — more specifically the changes that were written into it by Act 55 passed by the Republican legislature — has served to reify it in my own mind and in my colleagues’ minds. We, then, convince ourselves and others that a certain change that we have, in part, created is inevitable, and we even find ourselves working to protect our rights by writing policies that might actually vitiate them. Yes, yes, I have read the changes — I understand how 36.09(3m) would appear to make us (faculty and academic staff as governance bodies) subordinate to the other governance bodies. I understand too that the willful misinterpretation of “subordinate to” that strikes me as Swiftian in its bitter absurdity — is an attempt to transform the universities into a top-down management structure where the board is to be our corporate board and the administration, our executives. Could we stop allowing our paranoia, and the evocation of “the law” to control us, however, and begin to offer alternative interpretations that are no less accurate, and much more fruitful?

In focusing so much on the changes in relationship to the faculty and academic staff, we fail to note that shared governance remains alive and well in the law as it stands. What remains, for example, is the entire apparatus of a shared governance built on a joint effort and distinct primary responsibilities vested in the governance bodies — the board of regents, the president, the chancellors, included. Furthermore, these governance bodies have their responsibilities — almost a sacred obligation — to continue to support the educational mission of the university system. Nothing gives them the unilateral authority to change and modify programs; even the changes to the law must give this power to them by using vague bureaucratic language like “program or budget change” (36.21; 36.22; see also Board’s TPTF draft policy documents). More significantly, while the law talks about the importance of protecting the quality and diversity of education in the state, it says nothing of their responsibility to manage profits and losses, whether understood in terms of dollars, programs, or both. Finally, the governance body has the responsibility “[to] promote the widest degree of institutional autonomy within the controlling limits of system-wide policies and priorities established by the board” (36.09(1)(a)).

Ultimately, I do think we should call for a change in the parts of the law that are objectionable — and contrary to the plain meaning of the law taken as a whole; however, our efforts are better placed elsewhere right now. We can begin to act in more constructive ways if we immediately stop repeating formulas in which these bogeymen are in part created. (We should also stop talking about the bogeyman, “the public,” in this way). We have so much more to do. Let’s commit now, not just to monitoring the Board’s Task Force, but to continue to advocate for the great American tradition of shared governance at the heart of the universities.

4 thoughts on “Some Remarks on the UW-System Board of Regents Tenure Policy Task Force

  1. I know this would be hard for many to do given the costs but why not just walk out en masse. SOmetimes you have to take a stand even if it costs you.

    • The big question would be who’s doing the walking and who’s doing the talking. Another question, mainly directed at faculty, is, When will you wake up to realize your so-called colleagues (who hold academic status but who really are administrators) sold you out? Start with B(lank), C(cross), and $Mon(e)y. Are these characters from a Dickens novel, or just Dickensenain creatures. And by the way, Good luck on getting faculty to walk.

      Why do you think the Regents hired Cross? Did you look at what he did when he was in charge of WU Colleges? Has anybody paid attention to the closed door meetings among UW administrators and Wisconsin lawmakers?

      And finally, from a personal perspective of a 15 year adjunct with no benefits and no job security from semester to semester until I finally got a tenured position in another state system, UW Madison and UWM faculty are finally reaping what they have sown: No solidarity, not with adjuncts, clericals, or janitors.

  2. Yes, that is the proper action, UW System faculty and academic staff stood in solidarity with us (Classified Staff, nka University Staff) in Madison during the effective elimination of collective bargaining, 2011, Act 10. We of course remain in solidarity with them and would do the same now.

    Language related to Faculty tenure and probationary appointments, procedural guarantees for Faculty and Academic Staff, and Shared Governance were deleted from Chapter 36 because these changes are necessary to create the UW System Authority. What UW System and the Board of Regents are doing, with a little help from their friends in the legislature, is reorganizing UW System. The effect of course will be similar to what happened in 2011.

  3. Yes, that is the proper action. Faculty and Academic Staff stood in solidarity with us (classified staff nka university staff) in Madison during the effective elimination of collective bargaining, 2011, Act 10. We would do the same for them now.

    Language related to faculty tenure and probationary appointments, procedural guarantees for faculty and academic staff, and shared governance, were deleted from Chapter 36 in order to create the UW System Authority. UW System and the Board of Regents, with a little help from their friends in the legislature, are reorganizing UW System in a big way. This will have a similar effect as the changes did in 2011.

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