(WORT) — Wisconsin was once a state where “the search for truth” was protected under state law.
But that changed last year when Governor Scott Walker and the Republican state legislature removed tenure protections for University of Wisconsin faculty from state statute as part of the biennial budget.
Faculty became uneasy, but the UW Board of Regents pledged to adopt a system-wide tenure policy that mirrored the language formerly enshrined in state statute.
On Thursday the Board of Regents voted to approve a policy developed by a special task force of faculty, administrators, and regents.
But the new policy did little to alleviate concerns of faculty.
In her opening remarks at the meeting, Regent President Regina Millner told the Board of Regents that the task force had sought input from all relevant parties, and that it succeeded in striking a balance between preserving academic freedom and improving the UW’s financial competitiveness.
“The key goal was to make sure that the UW System tenure policy would remain comparable and competitive with our peers,” Millner said. “The policies we approved will be a critical new tool for our chancellors to better align our resources with the needs of the state without jeopardizing academic freedom or putting us at a competitive disadvantage.”
But many faculty members say the new policy undermines academic freedom and eliminates “real tenure.”
About twenty faculty members came to observe Thursday’s vote, some traveling to Madison from other UW System campuses. Many have been vocally opposing the new policy, arguing that it spells the end of “real tenure.”
At the heart of the debate is a new provision that allows administrators to terminate tenured faculty for reasons of “program modification.”
Before 2015, tenured faculty could only be laid off for cause or in cases of institution-threatening financial emergency. Under the new policy, faculty can be laid off if an academic program is deemed unviable for reasons that include purely economic or market-based considerations.
Geoffrey Peterson, Professor of Political Science at UW-Eau Claire, addressed the Regents at Thursday’s meeting and summed up faculty concerns.
“Economic factors can not and should not take precedence over academic considerations and academic freedom when making programmatic decisions,” Peterson said. The proposed amendments would “provide reassurance to the faculty that program elimination will take place under the auspices of faculty governance, prioritize educational considerations when considering programming discontinuance, ensure that every option will be thoroughly pursued prior to the layoff of tenured faculty, and in the unfortunate event of a layoff, provide a guaranteed severance package similar to our peer institutions.”
Although the Regents went on to discuss several amendments to the proposed policy at length, the amendments introduced to address faculty concerns failed by large margins.
Over the course of the debate, Regents argued insistently to keep financial considerations front and center.
Regent President Millner said tenure protections needed to be balanced against the need to provide administrators with more power to lay off faculty during tough financial times.
“We cannot ignore the needs of our chancellors,” Millner said. “Our chancellors are not dealing with people who always understand the needs of the institution to maintain financial stability.”
Regent José Vasquez, whose seven-year term ends this year, was the most outspoken in his opposition to the proposed policy, saying that the UW System was “cannibalizing itself” to come up with money to address a much larger crisis.
“Let’s be clear folks…it wasn’t tenure that caused the fiscal crisis,” Vasquez said. “This crisis was imposed on us by external forces.”
Faculty left the meeting in disbelief.
“I was bitterly disappointed,” said Dorothy Edwards, UW-Madison Professor and Chair of the Department of Kinesiology, who was also one of the faculty members on the tenure task force.
“I’m even more distressed by the tone of the discussion. I’d like to tell them as a department chair that I’m very mindful of economic considerations. I’ve closed programs, I’ve laid off economic staff,” Edwards said.
The next phase of the process is for each campus to come up with its own tenure policy, although each of those policies will have to abide by the system-wide policy approved at Thursday’s Regents meeting.