What happens in Wisconsin will not stay in Wisconsin. Lawmakers here are moving quickly to hollow out the definition of tenure and strip away due process rights for faculty members and academic staff. For legislators in other states who want to dismantle public higher education, they might look here to find new plays for their playbooks.
It is not uncommon for legislators to threaten tenure or criticize public education -- many do it for sport. But what’s unique in Wisconsin is that the proposed tenure changes are not coming from a fringe coalition: they are coming from the Joint Finance Committee, the most powerful body in the Legislature.
I am a tenure-track faculty member in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and have been in the state for only two years. I have a lot to learn and am naively optimistic that cooler heads will prevail and the tenure threats will wash over in time. But I cannot bring myself to a place of comfort; I am truly worried. And I am not just worried for Wisconsin, but for other states that will follow suit if this change actually happens.
Wisconsin is unique in that we are the only state (to my knowledge) to have enshrined tenure into state law. Moving this law from state statute to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents policy would not be entirely uncommon in the national context. What is uncommon is how political our board is compared to other states -- the governor appoints 16 of the 18 members and colleges don’t have their own campus boards to interact with the system.
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But even less common -- and far much more egregious -- is Section 39 of the Joint Finance Committee’s omnibus motion. It allows the Board to “terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment… due to a budget or program decision…” So instead of using widely accepted processes, faculty and staff can be terminated for “…program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists under current law.”
This undermines the core principles of shared governance, strips away due process rights and is an obvious assault on academic freedom. The board says its members will “adopt policies that reflect existing statutory language” and ensure faculty and staff will retain the same due process protections currently under state law.
If Section 39 of the budget bill redefines tenure, then the board must comply with the new state law.
This new definition extends far beyond the standard financial exigency criteria for termination of appointments and is out of line with the American Association of University Professors’ academic freedom guidelines. And the proposed change is happening without consulting the very stakeholders the law was designed to protect -- university faculty and staff members.
I know these tensions aren’t new; we are constantly justifying our existence and under financial stress. I get that. But this is a bridge too far. It doesn’t matter if the regents use existing statutory language, because this omnibus motion would kill it all. It trumps regents policy.
If this policy change happens, it will set a precedent for other states to follow, so watch Wisconsin closely. Keeping Section 39 could set in motion a series of events that will threaten the university’s ability to recruit and retain faculty, generate revenue, and even threaten our accreditation status.
As much as I wish this were all political theater or a simple misunderstanding, it is not. It is a very real threat and one that has been years in the making.
Instituting the $250 million budget cut will create the conditions where the Board of Regents can exercise their new authority to fire at will. The long-term academic and financial costs will far outweigh the short-term political benefits, and I hope our elected officials have the ability to see that far down the road.
Nicholas Hillman is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
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