Wisconsin Panel Approves New Draft Tenure Rules

February 8, 2016

The University of Wisconsin System moved a step closer Friday to approving new policies related to tenure -- policies that continue to worry faculty members. With little discussion, the Education Committee of the system’s Board of Regents unanimously voted to recommend draft policies on tenure and processes for layoffs or termination, paving the way for the full board to vote on the policies next month. The new policies were drafted by a system task force after Wisconsin’s Legislature voted last year to strike strong protections for tenured faculty from state statute, but faculty members say the new system-based policies still fall short of meeting American Association of University Professors-recommended standards. John Behling, the board’s vice president and chair of the system’s Tenure Policy Task Force, said the policies were drafted to reaffirm the board’s commitment to strong tenure and academic freedom while also increasing “accountability” to taxpayers. “Without that demonstration of accountability, whether real or perceived, our budget prospects in future years will not improve,” Behling added.

Tenure has been a touchy subject in recent months in Wisconsin due to the changes. That’s part of the reason faculty members objected strongly to a survey of their views on tenure this fall by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which has in the past endorsed conservative positions on state policy issues. Despite the controversy, the institute is back at it with a new survey concerning tenure -- this time of non-tenure-track faculty members in the university system. The survey includes such questions as, “In order to receive tenure, you have to take a lower salary. How much of a reduction in your annual salary (keeping your workload constant) would you be willing to take to receive tenure?” and "Would increasing the proportion of classes taught by nontenured instructors harm or improve the overall quality of instruction in your department?" Some faculty members have complained that some questions seem to encourage answers that suggest more faculty members should be off the tenure track.

But Mike Nichols, president of the institute, said this new survey was an effort to gather information on tenure from an entirely new group of respondents -- instructional staff. He shared a letter he sent to Behling last year, attempting to dispel some of what he called the “misinformation” surrounding the institute’s efforts. The letter says neither the institute nor the scholar conducting the survey had any preconceived notions regarding findings, and that the survey will “allow all Wisconsinites an opportunity to sift and winnow all objective information pertinent to a live policy debate.”

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