Change in Tone

With faculty members saying she hasn't done enough to fight legislative attack on tenure, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank reaffirms her commitment to academic freedom. But with many questions still unanswered, will her words be enough to prevent a flight of talent?

June 9, 2015
Rebecca Blank

Like many university leaders, Chancellor Rebecca Blank of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has had her ups and downs with the faculty. She butted heads with some professors in her support for a now-dead plan to make the university system into a more autonomous public authority, for example, but earned faculty praise when she defended professors against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s suggestion that faculty members might be shirking their teaching responsibilities.

But perhaps no time in Blank's two-year tenure has been rockier than right now, with the faculty in uproar over a legislative plan to eliminate tenure from state statute, greatly broaden the circumstances under which tenured faculty members may be fired, and limit the legal definition of shared governance. While Blank has no ties to the proposed legislative language, faculty members have called her out on social media and elsewhere for what they see as her failure to sufficiently defend them from the Legislature.

In response to the proposed changes, some faculty members have said they’re pursuing faculty positions in other states, where the future of tenure and shared governance as they know it is more certain.

The criticism of Blank has come despite a series of statements she has made affirming the importance of faculty rights. She's paid particular attention to the importance of tenure and academic freedom to the world-class research university, which stands to lose the most among Wisconsin’s public institutions in terms of a talent flight. But so far, she’s largely avoided taking on the Legislature’s plan, at least in public.

Blank changed her tone somewhat in an interview Monday. She said she was actively working with university leaders and others, albeit quietly, to eliminate the most controversial items of the proposed legislation: those that would permit the termination of a tenured faculty member in good standing for so much as a program “modification” or “redirection,” rather than just a financial emergency, as under current law.

Such language is “extremely unfortunate, and I hope we get an opportunity to change it,” she said, adding that “confrontation” isn’t necessarily the best way to oppose the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee’s budget motion.

“I don’t want to make the statement that it would be a disaster,” Blank added, “because that’s not helpful to anyone involved.”

At the same time, Blank said, the university already has taken steps to preserve tenure and faculty employment conditions, regardless of what happens in the Legislature. A subcommittee of the Faculty Senate is being established to help craft tenure and faculty employment policies and procedures that will protect academic freedom on campus, she said. That’s in addition to a similar committee being formed by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, which recently voted to adopt its own tenure policy, should the law change.

Since no other states have tenure so explicitly enshrined in state law as Wisconsin, she said, such university- and regents-level policies will simply put the institution in line with its peers in other states.

“I understand how and why my faculty are upset -- there’s a lot of change coming at them” with little warning, after a long year of talk about budget cuts and state educational values, she said. “But these policies and regulations will make our tenure policies pretty much identical to those of our peers.”

Blank’s statements echo an email she sent to faculty members over the weekend in which she said she would “not accept a tenure policy that is inconsistent with our peers, or that violates accepted standards.” She also pledged not to make changes in policy or practice at Madison until terms preserving the status quo are established.

“I'm convinced that -- even if this language is not changed -- we can write policies for UW-Madison that ensure strong tenure protection,” she said. “I realize that many faculty are dubious of this, and I hope we can talk about these options in the days ahead."

A day earlier, Ray Cross, system president, sent an email to university chancellors asking them to address what many faculty members perceive as a “backdoor threat” to tenure.

“I do not believe we can wait to address the lack of layoff procedures given the serious and rightful concerns expressed by faculty and others," Cross wrote. "They view this as a method to dismiss faculty without serious or methodical processes designed to guard against arbitrary actions. While I don't think we would do that, I do agree that this needs to be developed and it needs to be done quickly.”

In a public statement on Monday, Cathy Sandeen, president of UW Colleges and Extension, said the legislative proposals raised questions “throughout the university, the state and the nation about the impact of academic freedom.” The principle, she said, “is a foundational pillar of U.S. higher education, is integral to our ability to deliver on the Wisconsin Idea and must be preserved for the good of our state.”

But questions remain as to whether the university will be able to draft policies that can protect professors from state law, especially in the future under a different board of political appointees. Blank said the source of the current controversy is only “high-level summary” of final statutory language that is still being written, but that she was confident tenure wouldn’t be fundamentally altered -- again because most states don’t have tenure written into state law.

Doubts Remain

Others aren’t so sure. Henry Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said he wouldn’t be so concerned about the future of tenure in Wisconsin if the Legislature was just planning to take it out of state statute. But the proposed language making anyone terminable for broad variety of programmatic reasons is unusual and worrisome, he said -- especially as the university system is facing down a proposed $250 million budget cut over two years.

“The regents have told us we’ll put it all back into policy, and we hope they’re right, but we are certainly skeptical,” Reichman said. “How they can do that and not got against [the termination laws, should they pass] is at minimum problematic.”

Grant Petty, a professor of atmospheric science at Madison and president of the faculty advocacy group PROFS, agreed.

“Regardless of what policies are established by our current Board of Regents or by each campus in support of academic freedom and shared governance, the proposed statutory language, if passed, would serve as a permanent, open invitation to the regents to consider overturning those policies in the future,” he said via email. “No other state has that invitation spelled out in their statutes. Faculty recruitment and retention at UW-Madison is already being adversely affected by the fear that we will be the first.”

He added, “There can be no true academic freedom if faculty have to worry that a future Board of Regents, possibly a politicized one, might shut down or ‘redirect’ a program they don't like and dismiss the associated faculty without crossing a high hurdle, such as a declared financial emergency.”

There are also proposed changes to shared governance, limiting the faculty role to curricular and academic matters. Asked if she supported them, Blank said she needed to see the full statutory language first.

She added, “Unambiguously, universities run better with a collaborative process daily, consulting with faculty and staff and students about things that affect their lives, and I’m strongly committed to that and can’t imagine the process changing in any substantial way at Madison.”

Addressing some talk about top talent leaving the university amid the uncertainly, Blank said it was hardly unusual for high-performing faculty members to consider offers from other institutions. Other than publicly confirming that tenure at Wisconsin is safe, she said, perhaps “nothing but time will reassure people that the regents will support and protect tenure as strongly as it was and is protected.”

Talent Flight?

It’s time most faculty members are willing to give, for now. But some already have begun to leave, citing the state's uncertain climate regarding higher education. The Wisconsin State-Journal, for example, reported that two top chemistry professors are leaving for faculty jobs in other states, and taking their labs and grants with them. In an interview with the State-Journal, one of the professors, Mahesh Mahanthappa, said he decided to leave in April for the University of Minnesota, in part due to massive forthcoming budget cuts to higher education in Wisconsin. But he called the newest threats to tenure “very, very troubling.”

“Institutional support is an important issue for faculty and how faculty see themselves,” Mahanthappa said. “If the state doesn’t support the university, it doesn’t help morale.”

Some incoming faculty members are feeling the pinch, too. Joseph Gabriel, an associate professor in the College of Medicine at Florida State University, is set to begin at Madison in the fall as the first-ever George Urdang Chair in the History of Pharmacy. Gabriel said in an interview that he’s looking forward to the job, as it’s a “big step up professionally,” and Madison’s “intellectual climate is first-rate."

But he’s worried about the political climate in the state regarding tenure and academic freedom, especially as he sometimes writes critically about the powerful pharmaceutical industry.

What’s happening right now is “very confusing and it’s very dispiriting and it really undermines my desire to make the move,” Gabriel said. “Why should I leave an institution that I’m very happy at and where I feel like I’m doing very good, important work for a situation that is unstable?”

Gabriel said he’s particularly concerned that just a few key faculty departures could quickly “erode” the intellectual climate at Madison. He’s taking a one-year leave of absence from Florida State to work at Madison and see how things turn out.

Blank is facing a special meeting of the Faculty Senate Tuesday afternoon.

Caroline Levine, chair of English and co-chair of a posttenure review committee that’s so far found little evidence to corroborate the “lazy” tenured professor myth that some legislators have seemed to endorse, said Blank “assures us that she’ll be able to keep protections in the language governing the [campus], and I very much hope that she’s right.”

But, Levine added, “many of us are not as sanguine as she is, with a Board of Regents entirely appointed by a governor who is opposed to tenure and a public constantly fed the lie of lazy public workers. I don’t think we’ll know how protected tenure will really be for a few months.”


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