Alan Magayne-Roshak/UWM Photo Se
In Wisconsin, "the search for truth" had long been a concept protected under state law.
That changed last year when Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature removed tenure protections for UW faculty from state statute as part of the biennial budget.
Many faculty were worried, but the UW Board of Regents pledged to adopt a system-wide tenure policy that mirrored the language formerly enshrined in state statute.
On Thursday, the Board of Regents approved a policy developed by a special task force of faculty, administrators and regents over the last six months. But the new policy did little to alleviate concerns of faculty.
In her opening remarks to yesterday’s meeting, Board of Regents president Regina Millner told the board that she was proud of the policy developed by the task force.
“The key goal was to make sure that the UW System tenure policy would remain comparable and competitive with our peers,” Millner said. “I am proud of the work that has been done, and I am confident that the UW System will be in a strong position going forward.”
But many faculty members say the new policy undermines academic freedom.
At the heart of the debate is a new provision that allows administrators to terminate tenured faculty for reasons of “program modification.”
Prior to 2015, tenured faculty could only be laid off for cause or in cases of institution-threatening financial emergency. Under the new policy, faculty can be laid off if an academic program is deemed unviable for reasons that include market-based considerations.
Geoffrey Peterson, a political science professor at UW-Eau Claire, addressed the regents at Thursday’s meeting and summed up faculty concerns.
“Economic factors cannot and should not take precedence over academic considerations and academic freedom when making programmatic decisions,” Peterson said.
He urged the regents to adopt the amendments proposed by faculty, saying they would “provide reassurance...that program elimination will take place under the auspices of faculty governance, prioritize educational considerations when considering programming discontinuance, ensure that every option will be thoroughly pursued prior to the layoff of tenured faculty, and in the unfortunate event of a layoff, provide a guaranteed severance package similar to our peer institutions.”
Although the regents debated several changes to the proposed policy at length, in the end they rejected all of the amendments faculty requested.
Many regents justified their vote by saying the UW needed to keep financial considerations front and center, especially in these tough economic times.
“The policies we approved will be a critical new tool for our chancellors to better align our resources with the needs of the state without jeopardizing academic freedom or putting us at a competitive disadvantage,” Millner said.
“We cannot ignore the needs of our chancellors,” Millner added. “Our chancellors are not dealing with people who always understand the needs of the institution to maintain financial stability.”
For the most part, the UW System president and chancellors remained silent on the matter of greater administrative flexibility.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told the board that she supported the faculty’s proposed amendments. But she added that they might not be appropriate for other campuses.
José Vasquez, a regent whose seven-year term ends this May, was the most outspoken in his opposition to the policy, saying that the UW System is “cannibalizing itself” to come up with money to address a crisis it did not create.
“Let’s be clear, folks...it wasn’t tenure that caused the fiscal crisis,” Vasquez said. “This crisis was imposed on us by external forces,” he said, referring to the $250 million cut in state funding dealt in last year’s state budget.
Faculty left the meeting in disbelief over the failure of their amendments and the tone of the debate.
“When we teach critical thinking in the classroom, we like to say to look at things from many different frames,” said Mauricio Kilwein Guevara, a UW-Milwaukee English professor. “Today we saw the imposition of one frame, the free-market, corporate picture,” Guevara said.
Dorothy Edwards, who chairs the Department of Kinesiology at UW-Madison, was one of the faculty members on the tenure task force. Although she thought the task force chair, regent John Behling, had been “personally receptive” to faculty input during the process, she said she was “bitterly disappointed” by the vote.
“I’m even more distressed by the tone of the discussion. It indicated to me that many of the regents don’t understand how educational institutions function and that we’re constantly changing,” she said. “I’d like to tell them as a department chair that I’m very mindful of economic considerations. I’ve closed programs, I’ve laid off academic staff.”
Edwards added that if she had heard the discussion earlier she would have accepted an offer at the University of Pittsburgh.
Beth Lueck, English professor at UW-Whitewater and chapter president of the American Association of University Professors, says the new policy does not meet AAUP standards and, if used to terminate faculty, it could earn the UW a black mark.
“It would really be a terrible thing for the UW System to end up on the list of shame,” Lueck said. “A person applying for positions wouldn’t even apply to the UW if it were on that list.”
The next phase of the process is for each campus to come up with its own tenure policy. However, each campus policy will have to abide by the constraints of the system-wide standard approved Thursday.