Report on Controversial Wisconsin Tenure Survey

March 1, 2016

When the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute began surveying professors within the University of Wisconsin System last year about their views on tenure, many said they worried the institute might later use the findings to promote further changes to tenure policies in the state. That’s because tenure protections in Wisconsin were already weakened by a new state law, and because the institute had previously supported some conservative positions on state work and education issues.

It seems some of those fears have come true. In a new report called “The Trouble With Tenure,” the institute cites data from two separate faculty surveys and makes a number of policy recommendations, including giving campus chancellors the ability to lay off faculty for reasons such as significant program reduction or modification, and not just discontinuance.

Other recommendations include directing campuses and departments to develop precise and tailored definitions of professional and public service that include measurable contributions to the community and economy; mandating annual reports from each campus on numbers of tenured and tenure-track faculty, staff, and annual and posttenure reviews; directing individual campuses to departments to adopt stronger posttenure review processes with clear and denied expectations; and directing departments to publicly post tenure criteria.

The institute has maintained that it’s simply tracking a significant, live policy issue and says it’s been transparent about its process and data -- including findings that demonstrate the value of tenure to professors.

David Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said via email that the report appeared to “break little ground,” with few exceptions. He said he thought it was clearly timed to influence the University System’s Board of Regents before their meeting next week, in that the institute seems concerned that the board “may not use its full authority granted by [the new tenure law] to fire tenured faculty essentially at will.” The document still “fails to recognize the economic value of tenure, and the need to protect academic freedom against meddling by powerful political and business interests,” he added, as well as the role tenure has played in the rise of the American university over time.

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