Wisconsin Tenure Wars: Part Two

Madison faculty members are trying to restore in university policy what Governor Scott Walker and Republican legislators took away. Will the plan work?

November 3, 2015
 

Faculty members within the University of Wisconsin System lost a key battle when Governor Scott Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature removed tenure protections from state law. But professors are trying to preserve something like tenure as they know it through campus-specific policies.

And while some say the war’s already been lost -- since it’s unclear if a campus- or even system-specific policy can supersede the new, much more narrow legal definition of tenure in Wisconsin -- faculty advocates kept fighting Monday at the Madison campus before the Faculty Senate and Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

At its meeting, the Senate considered a tenure policy proposal from an ad hoc faculty committee that seeks to find a middle ground on faculty tenure protections. Previously in Wisconsin, tenure was enshrined in state statute, and there were no provisions beyond financial exigency allowing for the termination of a tenured faculty member in good standing. Last spring, however, the state Legislature changed the statute as part of a budget bill to make it much easier to fire tenured faculty members for any number of reasons -- including those as vague as “program modifications.”

Faculty members campaigned against the bill, saying it would diminish the Wisconsin Idea, or the state's special recognition of the ideals of higher education, and put the university system -- especially flagship Madison -- at a competitive disadvantage in terms of recruiting and retaining faculty. But the bill passed the Legislature amid promises from Ray Cross, university system president, that tenure could be preserved through more generous system and campus policies. The promise was echoed by Blank, Madison’s chancellor, and a campus faculty committee went to work on a draft layoff and termination policy.

That policy, vetted by Madison’s advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, passed the Madison senate unanimously Monday, following relatively minor amendments. Most significantly, the policy says, “No faculty member shall be laid off or terminated due to curtailment, modification and/or redirection of a department.”

Faculty members displaced “due to restructuring of a program or discontinuance of a program for reasons other than financial emergency or educational considerations will be placed in another suitable position, at the same rank, that is acceptable to the faculty member,” it says, and an amendment Monday increases the faculty role in such program decisions. If placement in another position requires a reasonable amount of training, the policy notes, the institution will bear the associated costs. 

The document also says that the campus chancellor may lay off or terminate a tenured faculty member or probationary faculty member prior to the end of his or her appointment only under extraordinary circumstances that lead to program discontinuance due to financial exigency or educational considerations.

David Vanness, an associate professor of public health sciences at Madison and president of the AAUP chapter, said the “first, best option” would be to return to the old definition of tenure.

But in light of recent events, he said, “We’re trying to promote a reasonable policy baseline.”

The policy passed relatively quickly Monday, but only after a question-and-answer period with Blank, during which some faculty members grilled her over her stance on tenure. While Blank made public statements earlier this year saying that changing the tenure statute could have a detrimental effect on faculty retention and recruitment, she also said she shared Cross’s belief that the tenure status quo could be preserved. But some have questioned both administrators' credibility in recent weeks, following a leaked email from Blank to a member of the Board of Regents who is chairing the systemwide policy task force. In it, she criticized a recent memo from Cross saying that campus-specific policies would have to be in line with and approved only after a forthcoming system policy, which in turn must be in line with state law.

Just days after the email, however, Blank in a statement said that she’d met with Cross and others, and that she was confident that “once a broad system policy is enacted, [Madison] will have the opportunity to finalize its specific policy.”

Faculty members at Monday’s meeting sought clarification from Blank, with one professor asking her whose side she was on. Blank pointed to her email as answer, but that was less than satisfying to some. Others took issue with Blank’s statement that system administrators had been in close contact with AAUP over the tenure issue, after Vanness read an email from Julie Schmid, executive director of the national AAUP, indicating otherwise.

“I am alarmed that system and/or campus administrations are indicating that they have AAUP’s imprimatur at this point when, frankly, without seeing a draft of the near-final product we can’t offer it,” Schmid wrote.

In her email, Schmid also expressed skepticism that a tenure policy like the one Madison’s faculty is backing could be achieved, given the restrictive language of the new state law. And that was perhaps the question mark hanging over Monday’s meeting: Will the Madison policy proposal mean anything in the long run, given that the likely more powerful system policy -- which must be in line with state law -- is still being drafted?

Blank said she expected that it would. But others weren’t so sure. Vanness said he wasn’t confident, since “the whole thing is so damned confusing right now.”

Noel Radomski, director and associate researcher for the Wisconsin Center of the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at Madison, said it likely won’t be clear until at least spring (when the Board of Regents considers the Madison policy) whether the forthcoming system policy and campus policies can coexist. It will be even longer -- years or more -- until it’s known whether the Legislature will accept the system policy, or again try to change the law to further weaken tenure, he said.

Radomski said he had the sinking feeling that some of the conversation would amount to "bad political theater," since the regents are beholden to the Legislature in many ways. A rough draft system policy is relatively bare-bones but says that consistency and uniformity will be promoted across the system.

Blank offered another timeline for clarity, telling the Wisconsin State-Journal the tenure policy passed Monday will be followed “unless the regents tell us otherwise.”

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