Fighting to Keep Leaders Who Are Academics

UW Madison professors oppose legislative proposal to ban university system from requiring that campus chancellors and presidents have academic backgrounds.

July 3, 2017
 

Faculty members at the University of Wisconsin at Madison want to kill a state budget proposal that would ban the university system’s Board of Regents from requiring the system president and campus chancellors and vice chancellors be academics themselves.

There is currently is no regent policy or rule requiring that the system president, chancellors or vice chancellors have tenure or terminal degrees. But Madison campus policy holds that its chancellor, provost and vice chancellor must hold a tenured faculty rank -- effectively disqualifying nonacademics. And members of the Public Representation Organization of the Faculty Senate (PROFS) want to keep it that way, they wrote to state legislators last week.

Madison’s current requirement, which stands in potential opposition to the legislative proposal, “underlines the need for incumbents to have experience, preparation and understanding of universities,” PROFS wrote to the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, “paralleling leadership qualifications demanded by most industries.”

In its letter, PROFS also alleged a lack of transparency surrounding the budget language being considered. The proposal was only made public the day it was introduced and approved by the committee, according to PROFS.

“There was no advance notice, it was never given a public hearing, and no legislator publicly took credit for it,” the group wrote. “Although PROFS had been meeting with members of the committee as well as legislative leadership, this proposal was never mentioned. In addition to the lack of transparency or opportunity for constituent input, this is also inconsistent with the committee leadership’s expressed desire that nonfiscal policy be removed from the budget.”

Wisconsin faculty members have reason to be wary of nonfiscal language in budget bills: it was two years ago that state lawmakers included major changes to tenure protections for public university professors in a budget motion.

If lawmakers want to introduce their proposal on administrators' backgrounds as separate legislation, PROFS wrote, the Madison faculty “would welcome the opportunity to defend the current [policy] language. This requirement is among the reasons why Madison is consistently ranked one of the top universities in the world.” Rebecca Blank, Madison's current chancellor, is a professor of economics.

It appears the regents want to retain their right to choose university leaders' qualifications, as well. Stephanie Marquis, spokesperson for the University of Wisconsin system, said Friday that the system’s position is that “these decisions are best left to the regents to decide.”

Alberta Darling, a Republican state senator and co-chair of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the proposal. Darling was a major proponent of the language eliminating tenure from state statute included in the last state budget bill, in 2015.

Threats to the higher education status quo have increased under the leadership of Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker. But nationwide, most campus presidents still have traditional academic backgrounds. The trend of hiring presidents from outside academe is also on the decline nationwide, according to a study from the American Council on Education released last month.

While the share of presidents from outside higher education had grown from 13 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2011, it dropped to 15 percent in 2016, according to ACE. The percentage of presidents who had never been a faculty member also fell, from 30 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2016.

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