Is Wisconsin System Chief Backtracking on Tenure?

November 2, 2015

University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross has come under fire from faculty and a high-profile administrator for his changing stance on how the system should address tenure in light of recent changes to its legal status in the state. Faculty members and Chancellor Rebecca Blank of the University of Wisconsin at Madison have criticized Cross’s recent directive that new tenure polices can’t be written at the campus level, saying that the guidance contradicts Cross’s earlier assurances that tenure as it’s known would be preserved at the campus level -- even though the Wisconsin state Legislature changed the law to make it easier to fire tenured faculty members.

“We were assured by Ray and others that Madison could write policies, which would be reviewed by the [system Board of Regents] for approval,” Blank wrote to John Behling, a regent who chairs a newly formed task force charged with reviewing the system’s tenure policies, in reference to Cross’s memo. “Those voices that have argued for more extreme policies (and have argued that the [board] is less than trustworthy on these issues) will be strongly reinforced, and those of us who have been trying to shepherd this in a responsible way toward resolution are likely to lose effectiveness.”

Cross’s memo -- as well as a draft version of a systemwide tenure policy saying professors could be fired for “underperforming” -- also angered faculty meetings at a faculty meeting late last month, according to the Wisconsin State-Journal. (Blank’s emailed letter was obtained by The Capital Times.) On Friday, the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin called for Cross to step down over his handling of the tenure issue, among others, saying “we no longer have confidence in his leadership.”

John Lucas, a spokesman for Madison, said Blank had since met with Cross to discuss her concerns. “Chancellor Blank is satisfied that UW Madison will have the opportunity to adopt its own language in [Madison’s] faculty policies and procedures, once a broad system policy is enacted,” Lucas added. “This is consistent with how other issues are managed between the system and individual campuses.”

Blank reiterated that message in a statement released late Friday, and said she expected the Madison Faculty Senate to pass a draft tenure policy today that will be sent to the system's tenure task force as a suggested campus policy. Once a broad system policy is adopted, she said, Madison will have the opportunity to finalize its specific terms. Behling said in a statement that he was glad Blank clarified her statement and that she and Cross are now “on the same page.”

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