What Remains of Tenure

Wisconsin regents aren’t done changing the way faculty members are evaluated. This time, they are seeking to give administrators independent power over posttenure reviews -- a move faculty groups oppose.

December 7, 2016
 

Faculty members across the University of Wisconsin System have fought -- mostly unsuccessfully -- a number of changes to their tenure protections since 2015, when the Wisconsin Legislature voted to strike tenure from state law. Now faculty members say what remains of tenure risks further erosion, via a proposed policy that would give administrators ultimate authority over faculty members’ posttenure review. The university says the proposed change is a mere formality, but many professors disagree.

Regents are scheduled to meet later this week, at which time they’ll consider revising a formal posttenure review policy adopted just last spring. The proposal makes clear that an administrator, not a faculty member or committee, will sign off on posttenure reviews. Such reviews determine whether faculty members meet or do not meet expectations, and those who do not meet expectations must complete a remediation plan. Such decisions are not subject to the normal faculty grievance process.

Currently, the systemwide posttenure review policy says each campus, through its normal governance process, “shall develop and implement a policy for periodic, posttenure review of tenured faculty members” containing a number of minimum criteria.

Regents now want to amend that statement to say that posttenure reviews “shall include an independent, substantive review by a dean, the provost or the chancellor, or a designee, with the appropriate administrator making the final assignment of the category reflecting the overall results of the review.”

The issue here is attracting particular attention because Wisconsin faculty members, while not pleased with the changes to the state's tenure system, thought they were at least done. So additional shifts are not promoting trust in a new system many professors already feel was imposed upon them.

David Vanness, associate professor of population health sciences at the Madison campus and past president of its advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he’s not opposed to administrators being part of the review process. But an independent review of a faculty member’s application breaks with the spirit and tradition of shared governance, specifically that educational matters -- including faculty appointments -- are the primary domain of the faculty. Other campuses already have included the proposed change in their posttenure review draft policies, but Madison has refused.

Under the proposed policy change, Vanness said, “it’s possible that a faculty member could be judged by their peers to meet or even exceed professional standards, but then be declared deficient by an administrator, thus triggering remediation, which also cannot be appealed under the policy, and possibly eventual dismissal.”

Dismissal proceedings would still be subject to due process, he said, but much damage already will have been done. He called the change an “enormous and unchecked power that could easily be applied to pressure faculty into behaving in a matter that is considered politically acceptable. Its use, or even threat of its use, could have a chilling effect on research and teaching activities.”

Michael Olneck, professor emeritus of educational policy studies and sociology at Madison, said that the proposed language, as written, seems "a complete vitiation of the rightful prerogative of the faculty, and the faculty alone, to apply evaluative categories to faculty peers." 

"I would rather they have language that says administrators need not be bound by the categorization and recommendations made by faculty than allow administrators to substitute their judgments of quality for that of the faculty," Olneck added via email. "That way the raw power of administrators would correctly be seen to be severed from the legitimate professional authority of the faculty. And the new position of administrators as 'bosses' would be seen for what it is, and the intentions of the Legislature and regents will have been satisfied."

Following the elimination of tenure from state statute last year, the regents said they’d develop their own tenure policies to close any gaps left by the change. But faculty members say the policies the regents ultimately approved offer fewer protections than they previously had and that are considered the norm nationally. Program closures are a real possibility in light of major cuts to higher education in the state budget, for example, and the new tenure policy says such closures resulting in faculty layoffs may happen for financial or educational reasons. That’s a major departure from the system’s prior policy, which said that tenured faculty members in good standing could only lose their jobs in cases of true financial exigency -- not just budget cuts. The standard is common in tenure policies elsewhere and is endorsed by the AAUP, which also allows for faculty layoffs for educational reasons determined by faculty members.

Regents also approved last spring the posttenure review policy facing the amendment.

Stephanie Marquis, a system spokesperson, said via email that “what is being proposed is minor clarifying language that specifies that even a positive/affirmative performance evaluation will still be sent to the appropriate administrator for review.”

A similar process is used for tenure decisions, she added. “Of course, peers will still play a major role in the evaluation process. It’s adding the last step of all reviews going to the appropriate administrator, not simply those evaluations that are unsatisfactory.”

Vanness said the change remains significant, despite any claim to the contrary.

“I am not surprised by the official ‘move along, there’s nothing to see here, folks’ explanation,” he said. “But, again, I would ask, why go through the formality and public embarrassment of being forced to amend their own policy -- on the heels of a no-confidence vote, no less -- for something they claim is so trivial?”

Vanness said Marquis’s comment comparing the proposed process to tenure was telling, in that it makes clear “that under this policy we will effectively be going through the process of re-earning our tenure every five years.”

One would think the system would want to avoid that impression, he added, “particularly given the challenges we have been having with recruitment and retention.” Madison paid out $23 million in retention incentives last year to hold on to an unusually large number of faculty members recruited elsewhere.

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