'Fake' Tenure?

U of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approves new tenure policies, rejecting a series of proposals that professors said would have protected some of their rights.

March 11, 2016
Faculty members wore academic regalia to protest the tenure changes.

Rejecting a set of amendments that faculty members argued would have preserved tenure as they know it, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved Thursday new tenure policies to fill a hole left by recent changes in state law.

“I do not believe the academy is precisely like a business,” Regina Millner, board president, said at the meeting. “But we cannot have quality, serve our students, have quality faculty if we do not have a sound financial system. This is a different century, this is a different time …. We need to protect that quality by making certain critical decisions.”

Repeatedly during the meeting, Millner and other regents cited the need, in an era of tight budgets, for "flexibility" to close programs -- and eliminate faculty jobs in the process. The votes here marked the near-end of two years of debate over a tenure policy that saw the university system's tenured faculty go from having among the strongest protections in the nation (written into state law) to having a system that many professors fear will make it too easy to dismiss them and eliminate programs they believe should be preserved. When the idea of removing tenure from state statute first surfaced -- at the behest of Governor Scott Walker, a Republican -- he and others said that necessary protections for faculty members could all be preserved in system policy. But the system adopted Thursday differs in key ways from what was removed from state law -- especially after a series of amendments were rejected.

Millner weighed in on an amendment proposed by Tony Evers, a fellow regent, that -- if passed -- would have addressed one of the biggest faculty concerns about the proposed policy regarding layoffs of tenured faculty: that it conflates financial and educational considerations in assessing programs for possible closure (and subsequent faculty job losses).

Before the Wisconsin Legislature voted last summer to greatly broaden the legal means by which faculty members may be laid off, to include program “modifications,” those with tenure in good standing only could lose their jobs in cases of financial exigency, which would mean an immediate threat to institutional survival. The standard is common in tenure policies elsewhere and is endorsed by the American Association of University Professors, which also allows for faculty layoffs for educational reasons determined by faculty members.

A policy drafted by a systemwide task force sought to reintroduce tenure protections at the university level, but still fell short in the eyes of many. Namely, it said that “educational considerations are related in part to regular program review, and reflect a long-range judgment that the educational mission of the institution as a whole will be enhanced by program discontinuance. This includes the reallocation of resources to other programs with higher priority based on educational considerations. Such long-range judgments generally will involve the analysis of financial resources and the needs of the program and any related college or school.”

Evers proposed that the policy be amended to specify that a designated faculty committee review programs being considered for closure based on purely educational concerns, alongside any other committee considering them based on financial and/or educational concerns.

“This focuses our efforts on educational considerations being our primary consideration,” Evers said. “Not all of it, but primary.”

The amendment, adapted from a request by faculty representatives from across the university system, echoed an earlier statement to the regents by Geoffrey Peterson, chair of political science at the university system’s Eau Claire campus: that faculty concerns about the proposed policies could be summed up by saying that “economic factors cannot and should not take precedence over academic considerations and academic freedom when making programmatic decisions.”

John Robert Behling, board vice president and chair of the tenure policy task force, objected to Evers’s proposal, however, saying that the creation of another committee would diminish the “flexibility, flexibility, flexibility” campus chancellors need to make decisions in light of the $250 million cut to higher education in the current state budget.

Regent Mark J. Bradley supported Evers’s notion, using a corporate analogy to argue that potentially pitting departments against each other to compete for scarce resources -- without explicitly prioritizing academic concerns -- could create an “unhealthy climate.”

But several other regents said it would be unwise to move financial concerns down the priority list, and compared closing programs to a business investing its resources in its most profitable products. “Welcome to the 21st century,” Regent Margaret Farrow said, arguing that Evers’s amendment could undo what the task force tried to achieve.

The motion failed, 11 to 5.

Another amendment put forth by Evers failed, 11 to 5, for similar reasons. It sought to replace the layoff policy language suggesting that judgments about program discontinuance will involve educational concerns alongside financial ones with the following statement: "Such long-range judgments will involve primarily educational considerations and secondarily the analysis of financial resources and the needs or the program and any related college or school. Fiscal considerations must be preceded by educational considerations. Criteria for determining whether a program should be eliminated ought to place greatest emphasis on the quality of the program involved. Such assessment should take into account the quality of the faculty, the value and the particular character of the program and the performance of its students."

Evers in a third proposed amendment argued that the layoff policy should be changed to say that administrators will “pursue” every alternative to faculty layoffs in the event of a program closure, instead of “consider.”

Bradley again supported Evers, saying the word “is stronger, and I want it to be stronger. An institution that’s trying to paint its reputation in higher education as being a good employer would act this way in any case, so why don’t we just come out and say it?”

But regents’ concerns about institutional flexibility again won out; the vote was 8 to 8, with the tie signaling a failure.

The board approved the task force’s proposed policies on tenure, posttenure review and faculty layoffs with several other, minor amendments. While they passed the package by a wide margin, Regent Jose F. Vasquez said he wouldn’t vote for any of the amendments because he wasn’t convinced the policy under which the university system has been operating for decades needed fixing -- even in light of the changes to state law. He said he didn’t believe that chancellors need more help running their universities, or that faculty members were so “entrenched” that they couldn’t make rational decisions about program viability on their own.

“They understand that two things are the lifeline of higher education: quality and students,” Vasquez said. “And students come because they find the quality and affordability, and I am convinced that both [faculty and administrators] understand that very clearly. I don’t think chancellors are looking around saying, ‘I can’t deliver that,’ and I don’t think faculty are looking around saying, ‘Damn quality, damn the students, I’m here to do my research, and if I happen to have only one student so be it.’”

Reiterating that he didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken, Vasquez added, “My concern … is we start putting language in here that this going to make it a challenge for us to hire quality faculty. And if you don’t think so, I think it will happen.”

Evers expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “I really hope that were are not creating a system where our faculty are minimized in their ability to do what they’ve done well going forward.”

System President Ray Cross endorsed the policies in a statement, saying they “protect the principles of academic freedom” and “sustain our competitiveness in the global marketplace for faculty expertise, research prowess and teaching talent.” They also “enhance our accountability to Wisconsin citizens and stakeholders,” he said.

A Missed Opportunity?

The meeting was briefly interrupted by student protesters, who called the new policies “fake tenure.” Some professors in attendance wore full regalia in support of the faculty-backed amendments. Others took to Twitter during and after the vote under the hashtag #faketenure to express their disappointment.

James M. M. Hartwick, professor of curriculum and instruction and Faculty Senate chair at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, said via email that he was “shocked and appalled that the board would not adopt a single amendment that the all the elected faculty representatives and all the faculty members on the [task force] requested.”

He said Thursday was “a sad day for the great tradition of academic freedom in Wisconsin. Tenure has suffered a serious blow [and] I am deeply concerned about our ability to hire and retain the best and brightest faculty in the future. We will clearly be a competitive disadvantage with our peer institutions and inevitably the quality of higher education in Wisconsin will decline.”

Noel Radomski, director and associate researcher for the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at Madison, followed Thursday’s meeting closely and said the board missed several significant opportunities to try to protect both tenure and the system’s reputation. Evers’s amendments weren’t necessarily game changing, he said in an interview, but if passed would have sent a clear signal that the board wasn’t an ideological arm of the state government that slashed tenure protections in the first place.

Instead, he said, many board members’ comments seemed to echo those of state politicians, particularly their use of the terms “flexibility,” “tool” and “accountability.”

“The regents made a strategic error and it’s going to come back to haunt them,” Radomski said. He predicted that program closures would soon begin at the state’s regional campuses, bringing even more negative attention to the university system and further impacting its ability to recruit and retain top faculty.

Behling at the meeting referenced attempts to collaborate with the American Association of University Professors on the policies, but the national association blasted the board's actions in a statement.

“It is now clear that the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has adopted a policy that provides weaker protections of tenure, and thus of academic freedom, than what has long been the norm in Wisconsin and than what is called for under the standards approved” by the AAUP, it said. “What is not clear is why the regents have adopted such a policy. The policy appears to be only the latest step in an ongoing attack on the University of Wisconsin as a public good that exists for the benefit of all citizens of the state. It jeopardizes the working conditions of faculty and academic staff as well as the learning conditions of students in the university. Weakening tenure at the University of Wisconsin weakens the University of Wisconsin.”

The board will next consider whether a Madison-specific tenure policy adopted in November is in line with the new system-wide policies. Radomski said he thought it would pass, if only to allow the regents to save face with faculty members in light of Thursday's vote. 

The big challenge for other campuses going forward, he said, is whether their tenure policies -- probably crafted with fewer legal resources than Madison's -- also will be approved by the regents, or offer equal protections for professors. On the other hand, he said, Madison's policy, if approved, could serve as template for regional institutions.


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