Wisconsin in Wyoming?

Proposed changes to shared governance at the University of Wyoming recall those passed in Wisconsin. Professors in Wyoming say tenure would exist in name only if their governing board gets what it wants.

May 15, 2018

Under pressure from the faculty, the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees this month postponed a possible vote on changes to institutional regulations giving the body sweeping new authority. Such changes would make it much easier to end academic programs and terminate tenured faculty members.

While the Wyoming board insists that the revisions are an attempt to sync institutional policies with what’s already in the state’s constitution, some professors see it as a power grab that could damage Wyoming’s only four-year public university. Critics have compared the proposed changes to those seen within the University of Wisconsin System, starting in 2015.

“A university is its people,” Christine Porter, Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health, said Monday. “And they’re going to lose the best people because this university would be the last choice for anybody who’s looking for a job -- and anybody who’s not rooted in Laramie would leave for elsewhere.”

A subcommittee of trustees and faculty will meet today to try to reach common ground on the proposals. That’s ahead of the new planned board vote in July -- when far fewer faculty members will be on campus or even in the state.

Some faculty members see the proposed revisions to the general UW Regulation 1-101 as most troubling. Currently, the document contains boilerplate language about university governance. But the revised document notes that the trustees are part of the Wyoming Constitution and state statute, and that university regulations may be “adopted, changed or amended at any regular or special meeting of the trustees without prior formal notice.”

Donal O’Toole, professor of veterinary science and incoming Faculty Senate chair, called UW Regulation 1-101 the “daddy” of all others. He said he was grateful that the trustees had already removed one bit of proposed language saying that the regulations were not meant to confer property or any other kind of right -- which he took to include tenure. Yet as it remains, he said, the revised regulation ignores the need for “transparency” about changes to university regulations and "at least an acknowledgment of academic freedom.”

Porter said such a change effectively means “the end of shared governance. Without even consulting the faculty, they could do whatever they wanted -- with no prior notice, even on a phone call, at any time.”

Michael Barker, a professor of civil and architectural engineering, immediate past chair of the Faculty Senate and a member of the special subcommittee that will meet today, said his top priority in terms of negotiations is UW Regulation 6-43 on academic program discontinuance. The regulation currently notes that “final authority” for eliminating programs -- and associated tenured faculty jobs -- due to such education-related factors as low enrollment or loss of accreditation lies with the board. But the revised version says the trustees "may decide to reorganize, consolidate, reduce and/or discontinue an academic program for educational, strategic, realignment, resource allocation, budget constraints or combinations of educational, strategic and/or financial reasons.” The campus president shall make final recommendations to the board. All efforts would be made to preserve full-time faculty positions, but they wouldn't be guaranteed.

Lumping together educational and financial reasons for discontinuing programs is a significant departure from higher education norms and, some say, values. Outside of true financial exigency, many institutional regulations paint a red line between curricular and budgetary concerns, since some relatively unprofitable programs have significant educational value -- as typically defined by the faculty -- and vice versa. That became a significant point of contention in Wisconsin in 2016, when the Board of Regents there passed a systemwide policy saying that administrations can discontinue programs for educational and financial reasons. The ramifications of that decision are playing out right now, including on Wisconsin's Stevens Point campus, which has announced plans to eliminate 13 majors, including history and all three foreign languages offered.

Barker, in Wyoming, said he’s hoping to convince the board that there’s a more nuanced way to achieve the institutional flexibility it desires “while protecting tenured and extended-term faculty lines.”

Asked if he was hopeful about his chances, Barker said, “I think we’re headed in the right direction here.”

In defending the board’s actions, trustees and their advocates have cited Wyoming’s boom-and-bust economy and consequent unpredictability in terms of state funding. The university was asked to cut $42 million from the budget over the last biennium, they say, so agility in decision making is key.

Porter said she believed the proposed changes were “100 percent about control,” however. She noted another, entirely new regulation proposal on "budget constraints" -- UW Regulation 6-42 -- that goes beyond an existing policy on financial exigency (which is also under revision).

In the event of “insufficient institutional revenue or state imposed budget cuts,” reads the new policy on budget constraints, the board “may impose budget restrictions; budget reductions; staff, faculty, and administrator hiring freezes; staff and administrator terminations; consolidations of departments or units; reorganizations; dropping of courses; eliminations of staff, faculty, and administrator vacancies; eliminations of other services; and/or other efficiencies.”

Such a proposal crosses another red line in terms of shared governance norms: widely followed procedures recommended by the American Association of University Professors say that tenured faculty members only should be let go for financial reasons in cases of true financial exigency -- meaning the lights might go out. This, again, was at issue in Wisconsin, when the state Legislature struck tenure from state law in 2015.

Laurie Nichols, university president, disagreed with the board when it centralized even departmental-level reserve funds last year, following legislative concerns that the university might somehow have more money than it was letting on. But Chad R. Baldwin, a spokesperson for both the university and the board, said Monday that Nichols and the trustees are on the same page regarding the proposed regulations. He also described those changes as aligning university policy with the state constitution. (For the record, the state constitution says that the Legislature “shall provide by law for the management of the university, its land and other property by a board of trustees.” Wyoming Statute states, “The board of trustees shall prescribe rules for the government of the university and all its branches.”)

The “upshot,” Baldwin said, is that the “board and the administration understand the Faculty Senate has concerns. But there is no effort under way by the board or administration to eliminate tenure.”

Baldwin also stressed that during the $42 million budget crisis in 2016-17, no tenured faculty member was let go. The new regulations would make it much easier to eliminate tenured faculty members, of course.

John MacPherson, board chair, did not respond to requests for comment.

David Vanness, an associate professor of population health science at Wisconsin’s Madison campus who vocally opposed the policy changes there, said that Wyoming’s trustees “appear determined to outrace” the Wisconsin system "to the bottom."

Public universities in his state have begun to see the consequences of "allowing administrative decisions to break contractual commitments to faculty and staff for vaguely defined shifts in priorities,” Vanness said, and the new policies at Wyoming “appear to go even further, stripping away even the thinnest veil of shared governance or due process.”

While the faculty, staff and students will “bear the initial brunt,” he added, “the citizens of Wyoming will ultimately bear the costs in the long run.”

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