Losing Hope in Wisconsin

Faculty members say the university system's Board of Regents missed an opportunity to ask that the legislature abandon controversial changes to tenure and shared governance.

June 5, 2015
U of Wisconsin professors taped their mouths shut Thursday at university system Board of Regents meeting to protest planned changes to tenure and shared governance in state statute.

With Wisconsin legislators poised to remove public university tenure from state statute, many faculty members were hopeful that a Board of Regents committee would respond forcefully Thursday. But the committee meeting ended with faculty leaders feeling that they had been let down.

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents' Education Committee did vote to preserve tenure in the system regulations even if it is removed from state statute, but many professors said the committee could have done more to oppose proposed legislation making it much easier for faculty members in good standing to be laid off.

“This was a missed opportunity,” and one that increases the likelihood that the full state Legislature will approve new limits on faculty power approved last week by its powerful Joint Finance Committee, said Noel Radomski, director and associate researcher for the Wisconsin Center of the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at Madison.

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Radomski, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said the regents could have “sent a message to the [state] assembly, senate and governor that they disagree with what’s been proposed, and the fact that they didn’t is very sad and depressing.”

David Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences at Madison who presented the Education Committee with a 2,800-signature petition opposing the changes, also said he was disappointed.

“For a while I thought we were going to have some progress,” he said, noting that some regents supported the idea of formally asking the Legislature to reject proposed language broadening the circumstances under which tenured faculty members may be laid off or terminated. In the end, however, the committee voted to refer a basic tenure policy to the full board for a vote today, with the proviso that a board committee will create its own layoff and termination procedures.

“I’d say it doesn’t look good,” Vanness added, “unless some political pressure is brought to bear and people consider what the economic impact would be to the university system and the state of Wisconsin.”

Last Friday, in a surprise to many, the Legislature’s influential Joint Finance Committee passed an omnibus budget motion striking tenure from state law, effectively leaving its fate up to the regents. The motion also puts new limits on the legal definition of shared governance and, perhaps most concerning to critics, includes lengthy new procedures for eliminating the jobs of even tenured faculty members.

Currently, in line with widely followed policies established by the American Association of University Professors, tenured faculty members who are performing to standard only may be laid off for budgetary reasons in cases of true financial emergency (AAUP uses the term “exigency”). According to the legislative committee’s motion, faculty members going forward may be laid off or terminated “when such action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” It should be noted that AAUP policy allows for termination of tenured appointments or probationary appointments "as a result of bona fide formal discontinuance of a program or department of instruction" that enhances the college or university as a whole. But such decisions "will be based essentially upon educational considerations," not cyclical or temporary variations in enrollment, "as determined primarily by the faculty as a whole or an appropriate committee thereof," according to AAUP. Whenever possible, the affected faculty members will be moved to another program. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to include AAUP's educational reasons for discontinuing a program.)

It’s that last portion of the budgetary motion -- which reflects many of the changes proposed in Governor Scott Walker’s original budget bill -- that generated the most debate Thursday among members of the board’s Education Committee. Faculty members have said the language doesn't belong in a budget motion, and that it leaves them professionally vulnerable.

Regent Tony Evers, who is superintendent of Wisconsin’s K-12 system, said he’d seen how Walker’s Act 10 limiting the collective bargaining power of public employees negatively impacted teacher morale. Consequently, he said he worried about how the new proposals would impact university faculty and staff. Indeed, many professors already have publicly stated they would consider leaving the state if the motion becomes law.

As the committee considered a proposal to adopt a similar tenure policy to the one currently in place under state statute, Evers proposed an amendment that all nonfiscal language about layoffs and terminations be removed from the omnibus motion section in question, effectively preserving the status quo in tenure policy, if not as a matter of law. He said the purpose was to send a message to the Legislature that the regents were against the changes becoming law. His amendment echoed a statement from Madison's University Committee, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate.

In the end, however, Evers’s amendment was defeated, 4 to 3. The tenure policy the full Board of Regents will consider today charges a joint task force, including faculty, to consider new layoff policies -- presumably more protective of faculty positions than the proposed legislation -- if the motion becomes law.

But some faculty members say the task force’s work will be moot, since the state budget is to be settled before July -- months ahead of the new board policy deadline. That is, law trumps policy. The tenure policy the board’s Education Committee approved Thursday even includes a clause saying that if adopted, “it must comply with applicable state law.”

Questions of what’s next, and of supremacy of law to policy, also tripped up Ray Cross, the university system's president, in a question-and-answer period with the full board on the omnibus motion Thursday afternoon.

When asked by Regent Charles Pruitt about which document would “prevail” if the task force came up with something different than what the state legislature ultimately passes, Cross said he was “going out on a limb” but believed there was room for regents to flesh out state statute and adopt a “legitimate, agreed-upon process.” He also noted his commitment to academic freedom, saying a university doesn’t exist without it.

Still, Cross noted that the board was working with the omnibus motion, not final statutory language, and that that was contributing to some of the confusion and “rumor.”

Regent Mark Bradley raised another point: What might happen if a future Board of Regents -- not so “conscientious” as the current -- sought further limits to faculty power, which were supported by state law?

That’s what concerns faculty members like Radomski. He described Thursday’s meeting as an exercise in “political theater,” saying that tenure is significantly weakened as long as the controversial layoff and termination language becomes law.

Wisconsin State Senator Julie Lassa, a Democrat who is opposed to the omnibus motion, said she thinks it will pass, given the Joint Finance Committee’s power within the Legislature. But she advised students, faculty, staff and others to contact their state lawmakers and voice their opinions.

To Lassa, the changes -- coupled with a $250 million higher education budget cut over two years -- pose a real threat to the state.

“This will serve as further incentive for quality faculty members to leave,” she said, saying that the state could have taken up $360 million in federal Medicaid expansion funds to plug its budget hole. Salary compression and relatively low pay are already problems at campuses such as her alma mater, Steven’s Point, she said, and new restrictions on faculty power will make it harder to recruit and retain talent.

Sheila Harsdorf, a Republican who is chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges and co-sponsor of the omnibus motion, said such concerns were overstated. She noted that Wisconsin is one of the only states to include tenure in law, and that the changes were aimed at bringing its university system more in line with its peers.

“This gives the Board of Regents the chance to look at the policy and what needs to be in place as it affects faculty and campuses,” she said.

Harsdorf also said some of the other changes in the motion -- such as shared governance that more narrowly defines the faculty role as advisory in curricular, academic and academic personnel matters, or new guidelines for merit pay -- offer the kind of flexibility the system needs to deal with the $250 million budget cut, originally set for $300 million. She said the university system has been requesting additional flexibility for some time; indeed, Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who was not at Thursday’s meeting, was a proponent of Walker’s now-dead proposal to make the university system into a more autonomous public “authority.”

In a statement Wednesday, Blank reaffirmed her commitment to tenure, saying she pledged to do everything she could create campus policies to “guide” how the new laws would be applied.

“Removal of tenure should always be a last-case option,” she said. “Even in the face of program closures -- I can think of a number of such cases in peer institutions -- top-ranked universities relocate and reorganize their affected faculty if at all possible. Most importantly, these statutory changes should never be used as a mechanism to terminate faculty whose scholarship and research is viewed by some as misguided or without value -- the very heart of what the tenure system is meant to address.”

Asked whether she thought any regents’ policy on tenure would be definitive, even if it conflicted with state law, Harsdorf said the omnibus motion language was “permissive.”

“The board will determine the policy as it affects tenured faculty,” she said.

Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at Madison, said that whatever the policy says, the university -- faced with the massive budget cut and tuition freeze also included in the omnibus motion -- is effectively being put in a “stranglehold that creates the conditions in which program closures and other difficult decisions can be made much more easily.”

There’s a sense of it all “ratcheting up to some really scary conclusion,” he said. “But maybe it blows over and nothing happens.”

The AAUP is concerned. It sent a letter to Cross and Michael J. Falbo, board president, offering assistance as the legislature weighs the omnibus motion.

“The proposed changes in tenure and due process and a $250 million proposed cut to the UW system amount to a direct attack on higher education as a public good, a vision of higher education that has shaped the UW system from the formulation of the Wisconsin Idea in 1904 to the present day,” the letter reads.

Rudy Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University and national AAUP president, said tenure simply doesn’t exist when tenured faculty members can be dismissed for any of the “vague” reasons outlined in the omnibus motion.

“It pretty much allows them to dismiss anybody for whatever reason they want, and I really worry about that in this kind of political climate, where we’ve seen other programs eliminated for political reasons,” he said, citing North Carolina as one example.

The shared governance changes also are alarming, Fichtenbaum said, since “tenure and shared governance go hand in hand. Tenure is largely seen as being a protection for individuals being able to exercise individual academic freedom, but shared governance is really faculty collective academic freedom, in the formulation of academic policy, budget priorities, the hiring process and the very process of granting tenure.”


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