End of the Line in Wisconsin

When the Wisconsin Legislature took tenure out of state statute, faculty members at the University of Wisconsin at Madison hoped they could preserve the status quo in a campus policy. But that hope is fading amid new proposals on a policy for layoffs of professors.

April 7, 2016

When the Wisconsin Legislature removed tenure from state statute last year, leaving the Board of Regents for the University of Wisconsin System to create a new tenure policy compliant with the new law, the Madison campus moved to protect tenure as it knew it with its own set of guidelines.

Faculty members at Madison worried about how the regents would treat their policy proposal, approved by the Faculty Senate in November, but many remained hopeful that it wouldn’t be gutted. Campus Chancellor Rebecca Blank also supported the policy, saying the university would operate according to it until the regents said otherwise. But now some of those fears have materialized as proposed amendments to the policy ahead of a meeting of the regents this week.

“The parts of the policy that made us compliant with professional standards are all about to be changed,” said David Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences at Madison and president of the campus’s advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, “and don’t protect us from being terminated for purely budgetary priorities.”

Madison's administration, meanwhile, seems to be amenable to the changes.

Some of the proposed amendments to the Madison Faculty Senate policy, recommended by university system counsel, mirror those debated by the regents last month as they considered changes to the systemwide stance on layoffs for tenured faculty. (In the end, the faculty-backed amendments were voted down.)

A board committee will today debate proposals on layoff procedures for tenured faculty members at Madison. Where faculty members, with Blank’s support, wanted to say that the administration would “pursue” alternative appointments for faculty members targeted for layoffs for budgetary or educational reasons, university system has recommended that the board change it to “consider.” Madison’s obligation to retrain faculty members targeted for layoffs for alternative positions also would be limited to what is “feasible,” and a guaranteed severance of six to twelve months’ pay, based on length of service, would instead be provided at “the discretion of the chancellor or designee.” Reflecting state statute, financial grounds for termination would be “emergency,” not the more immediately dire “exigency,” recommended by AAUP.

Most concerning to some faculty members is a section concerning the chancellor’s role in laying off professors due to educational considerations. Whereas Madison’s policy proposal says the chancellor’s recommendation to the board must be based on a faculty body’s assessment, the proposed changes say the chancellor “shall consult” faculty bodies on the matter.

Vanness said the changes are meaningful and purposefully decrease faculty control over personnel and curricular matters -- what professors were worried about all along. They also don’t bode well for the regional universities that were hoping to use the Madison policy as a template for their own, he added. “The atmosphere is not real great here.”

Madison’s Faculty Senate on Monday overwhelmingly passed a resolution saying that its November changes to its layoff policy “are the product of lawful faculty governance in accordance with the faculty’s primary responsibility for educational matters” and “should be accepted by the [regents] without material alteration.”

A spokesperson for the university system had no immediate comment on faculty opposition to the changes.

Despite her initial support for the faculty-backed policy, Blank seems to support the amendments. Madison Provost Sarah C. Mangelsdorf said via email that she and the chancellor “believe that the proposed edits are acceptable,” and that some edits are necessary to be in compliance with state statute and the new regents’ layoff policy.

“On the basis of what I have read of our peers’ policies, I believe that the policy the Faculty Senate has advanced, with the edits as proposed by the university system, provides similar, and perhaps in some cases even better, protections to those offered at other peer institutions,” Mangelsdorf said.


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