Wisconsin Regents Committee Approves Tenure Changes Without Discussion


A controversial set of policies governing tenure at University of Wisconsin System schools that may threaten academic freedom were endorsed without debate Friday by a Board of Regents committee.

“I’m stunned,” UW-Madison professor David Vanness, President of the UW-Madison AAUP, said of the swift approval. “I wonder whether due diligence is being done.” James Hartwick, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at UW-Whitewater, said he was “deeply disappointed in the lack of discussion of legitimate issues.” It seemed like a closed process, he said.

Before the meeting began around 60 faculty members from half a dozen UW campuses across the state rallied outside to protest the proposals. Faculty clearly are unhappy that the Legislature forced changes “when tenure wasn’t broken.”

Earlier in the week the AAUP and AFT-Wisconsin issued a joint statement expressing pleasure that “over the course of the development of the draft regent policies on tenure, a number of central elements of the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure have been incorporated.”  However, the statement registered the organizations’ concern “that some of the provisions in the draft regent policy documents fall far short of those standards. Particularly alarming is the inclusion of a provision for program prioritization based primarily on financial considerations for the purpose of discontinuing academic programs and laying off faculty.”  Nicholas Fleisher, Vice-President of the UW-Milwaukee AAUP also offered a detailed critique of the proposals on his blog.

The full Board of Regents is expected to act on the policies at its next meeting in March, when it could also approve separate campus-specific tenure rules.  Vanness said he is “not optimistic” about action before the full board.  However, two regents expressed concern that the policies could weaken tenure in ways harmful to the university.

The policy changes were driven by provisions of the 2015-17 state budget that stripped tenure protections from state law and expanded administrators’ authority to fire tenured faculty, allowing for layoffs if academic programs are curtailed, modified, discontinued or redirected. One policy defines awarding of tenure essentially as it was in state law before Republican lawmakers removed it and directed the regents to craft new tenure policy. Another adds new requirements for post-tenure reviews every five years and would make it possible to fire tenured faculty if they don’t meet remediation plans within three semesters, or up to four semesters if it’s a research-related issue. A third, the most controversial, would allow layoffs of tenured faculty if academic programs are cut after all other feasible alternatives are considered.

The proposed policy does not explicitly prohibit faculty layoffs due to changes to educational programs short of out-right discontinuation, which was the most common complaint about the proposal on the Regents website’s comment section.  Several members of the Tenure Policy Task Force that prepared the proposal had urged that those prohibitions be added.  Although task force chair Regent John Behling said in December that the requested change regarding layoffs would be considered, it did not make it into the draft approved by the committee.

UW faculty members have said allowing for layoffs to accommodate program changes short of discontinuation raises the risk that faculty will be targeted for engaging in unpopular speech or controversial lines of research.  The proposed policy on layoffs addresses only the process for laying off tenured faculty when education programs are discontinued. Failing to mention other changes to education programs in the policy means that state statute will control those situations, one commenter argued.  Chapter 36 of state law authorizes the Board of Regents to “terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.”

The policy as presented “leaves unaddressed the greatest harm to individual faculty members’ tenure protection” and “will not offer the assurance that the UW System institutions need in order to attract and keep the best faculty,” said another anonymous commenter.  The omission is harmful to the “surety of academic freedom, no matter the prefatory statement” of the policy, the commenter added.

Behling said the new policies give faculty protections comparable to those at other universities, and borrow from the tenets of tenure rules at the universities of Michigan, Maryland and California, among others.  “These policies will help us demonstrate accountability, which is what the public wants to see from the system,” Behling said. “Without the demonstration of accountability, our budget prospects in future years will not improve.”

Vanness called some aspects of the policies encouraging, but said they create “loopholes” that will make it easier for chancellors to fire professors when they face tight budgets.  That’s because, while faculty will have input in the process for deciding what programs are discontinued, Vanness said, chancellors will have the final say.  “If there’s a budgetary shortfall, and you’re in a program that’s considered not a high priority, they can get rid of you,” he said.

Vanness added that the policy on layoffs “conflates bona fide ‘educational considerations’ with ‘financial resources’ and ‘market demands’” in a way that “seems designed to use chronic underfunding as a tool to allow UW System to break its binding commitments to tenured faculty in order to reshape our universities into vocational learning centers.”  He added that the policy reflects what he dubbed Walker’s “New Wisconsin idea,” under which the university’s mission “is only to train the workforce for the jobs of today, not to search for the truth and lay the groundwork for the industries of tomorrow.”

[To watch an interview with Vanness about the proposals go to: http://wpt.org/Here_and_Now/uw-professor-responds-proposed-tenure-changes]

Regent Mark Bradley said after Friday’s session that he wants to open the tenure issue for discussion before the full board because he is concerned that the policies recommended by the education committee weaken tenure in ways that could harm the university.  “If the goal is to recruit and retain the best in order to provide the best service, then we need to look at these proposals and have a discussion is it true or not that we are falling behind what are generally considered accepted standards in the academic world,” Bradley said.

Regent Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction and a member of the education committee that approved the proposals, missed the meeting but he wrote to fellow regents expressing concern about the tenure policies.  “Like many of you, I have heard the voices of our faculty express their worry that this language does not yet meet the standards they would hope to see in an institution of higher education that values tenure. I share those concerns,” Evers said in an email.

Evers attached a comparison of the UW proposals that itemizes what AAUP sees as provisions that don’t meet that organization’s standards and asked the committee to consider them. “While the board may feel that the policies in front of us protect and recreate tenure much as it was before, our faculty do not believe that to be the case,” Evers wrote. “I also believe it reflects on our commitment to a system of shared governance to further respond to and engage our faculty on this matter.”

UW System President Ray Cross said after the meeting that the regents are still open to suggestions for wording changes. “It’s frustrating to me that the emotional reaction on the part of some folks failed to realize the substance of tenure was simply moved from statute to board policy,” Cross said. “We had to have a solid tenure policy similar to others around the country. It also had to honor language in new legislation concerned about accountability with reasonable timelines and processes to deal with underperforming faculty, and to reward faculty who exceed expectations.”

But whether this is possible while still conforming to widely observed AAUP standards, remains to be seen.

5 thoughts on “Wisconsin Regents Committee Approves Tenure Changes Without Discussion

  1. It will continue non stop. Thinking that talking, reasoning or even protesting is delusional. Bold action must be called for before the academic profession is turned into simple labor that is ruled by petty economic oligarchies hell bent on exploiting humanity.

  2. Is it not a shame, but all too oft common, that administrations do not understand the difference betwixt the left & right hand? There actually are some good ideas in this proposal, but then they are short-circuited by ill-founded policy directives undermining secondary edumacation.

    It is very important to have enough flexibility to phase out programs that take students to dead ends. Case in point: the once antiquated degree in medical technology. The new version has become useful again. However one of my best buddies earned a BS in med tech in the 1980s. He was fooled and misled by the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, whom at the time had an expansive program in med tech.

    Even though the school knew full well the degree had become obsolete, they kept pimping the program, as they had invested heavily in it. My friend was left holding the bag- he was unemployable. The university eventually phased out the program, but not before thousands were unnecessarily harmed.

    Universities require the flexibility to rapidly adapt to changing markets. However they also require the flexibility to retain tenured faculty and reassign them to new programs as the old are discarded. Absent that flexibility, education shall suffer across the board.

  3. Boo-hoo. The fact is that in many states, tenure is a fiction. In Indiana, for example, state law specifically declares that all public university employees are employed on an “at-will” basis, meaning that tenure is at best a fiction. The simple truth is that the tenure process is more often used to punish assistant professors who do not toe a party line not explicitly defined by departmental peers than to actually protect academic freedom. I think as well that we all know of a few faculty who use tenure to protect themselves from having to be productive – in my last department, research productivity and external funding declined with each promotion past assistant professor, and fully a third of the Professors had not published in the five years before I departed. Tenure is an anachronism that needs to be, at bare minimum, significantly reformed to ensure the accountability of senior faculty and prevent the abuse of junior faculty.

    • Three points:

      1) I don’t know a lot about Indiana nor am I an attorney, but a simple Google search reveals numerous and throrough tenure policies at Indiana public universities, for example at the state’s flagship Bloomington campus here: https://www.indiana.edu/~vpfaa/academicguide/index.php/E._Tenure/Reappointment/Promotion/Salary

      The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that tenured faculty members have a property interest in continued employment, and this interest translates into certain due process rights. Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972) (“A written contract with an explicit tenure provision clearly is evidence of a formal understanding that supports a teacher’s claim of entitlement to continued employment.”). Among the numerous cases in lower courts since affirming this interest is Colburn v. Indiana University, 973 F.2d 581 (7th Cir. 1992).

      So, can you provide any evidence that tenured or tenure-track faculty members at public universities in Indiana are treated as at-will employees? (I have little doubt that the growing army of so-called “adjuncts” are treated there, as elsewhere, in this manner; but that’s a different issue.)

      2) I certainly won’t deny that the tenure process is both open to and has been abused, including by senior faculty against junior faculty. However, what evidence do you have that this occurs “more often than not” (i.e., in a majority of cases)? At my own university, for instance, I served on quite a few departmental, college, and university T&P committees and NEVER encountered the sort of abuse you claim to be the norm.

      3) If tenure needs to be “significantly reformed” to ensure “accountability,” as you contend, how do you see the changes enacted in Wisconsin as facilitating that? Those changes do not address the abuses you fault; they simply give administrators more power to remove faculty members through program change.

  4. Boo hoo my butt. Try remaining competitive in science & engineering, bucko, when tenure is phased out. If you don’t believe me, then consult Uber-conservative CU president Bruce Benson…. he’d be happy to fill you in on the schtick.

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