By Nathan Kober
March 16, 2016
The UW System Board of Regents passed a new set of tenure policies on March 10, making it easier for campus administrators to fire faculty.
The new policies came as part of the greater changes made to the UW system in Wisconsin’s 2015-17 biennial budget, that stripped away tenure from state law in an attempt to give the UW System more autonomy.
The policies were voted on by an education committee in February, and a tenure policy task force was commissioned by the Board to investigate the policies and add recommendations on Feb. 5.
Faculty at multiple campuses raised concerns about the policies at the time, saying they undermine academic integrity by basing academic value on financial concerns and by taking power away from shared governance in deciding when to fire tenured staff.
Faculty proposed amendments to protect the academic freedom of their universities, but all the amendments were denied at the meeting.
UW-Whitewater Faculty Senate Chair James Hartwick said he was “shocked and appalled” by the board’s’ decision.
“This is a sad day for the great tradition of academic freedom in Wisconsin,” Hartwick said.
Each individual school in the UW System must submit its own tenure policy within the next nine months. Those institutional policies can be used to strengthen faculty tenure but must be passed by the Board of Regents in accordance with their policy.
The major concern among faculty is that weakening tenure will make it harder for the UW system to hire and maintain quality staff.
Hartwick said the system as a whole may suffer because of the policies.
“I am deeply concerned about our ability to hire and retain the best and brightest faculty in the future,” Hatwick said in an email to the Royal Purple.
Faculty and educational staff are already leaving the system.
Professor Sara Goldbrick-Rob at UW-Madison announced in an online post on Monday that she would be leaving due to the policy changes. She said Wisconsin’s academic integrity have been degraded by attacks on public workers rights.
“Terrified sheep make lousy teachers, lousy scholars and lousy colleagues,” she wrote.
Goldbrick-Rob studies the economics of higher education policies and she is the only tenured member of her specific department. The new policies would make it easier to fire her by removing her program based on financial considerations with little faculty input.
While it is normal to consider removing programs based on educational value, the new policies base the educational value of a program on financial concepts like “market demand” as well as “current and predicted comparative cost analysis/effectiveness of the program.”
For professors like Goldbrick-Rob whose work is inherently political, there is a fear that weakening tenure will make it easier to fire faculty for political reasons.
“McCarthyism is alive and well — especially here in Wisconsin,” Goldbrick-Rob said.
She’s not the only one leaving.
The loss of job security over the past five years have been the cause of other high profile departures. In January 2015, two of Madison’s science professors left for competing universities, taking their research grants with them.
Flexibility or insecurity
At the Regents meeting faculty proposed three amendments that would have made tenure stronger by prioritizing educational value and faculty governance in the firing process. All of them were struck down.
Hartwick co-wrote the amendments, and was surprised by the reasons the Regents’ gave for their decision.
“There was a pretty strong ideological bent in some of the regents,” he said.
The discussion ultimately came down to whether Wisconsin’s public higher education system should be run like a private business. Multiple Regents brought up their own business experience as the reason for their votes.
Regent Vice President John Robert Behling explicitly outlined what he saw as the need to limit tenure protection by stressing the need to give administrators more “flexibility” to fire tenured staff.
Behling served as vice president for Smart Sands, a hydraulic fracking company, and served on a committee for Globe University, a for-profit college. Behling has written in the LaCrosse Tribune that tenure policies should “allow our campuses to operate more like businesses.”
Behling voted against the amendment stating educational value should take priority over finance when proposing program removal.
Another amendment proposed by the faculty stated program elimination should be decided under shared governance.
Regent Margaret Farrow, who served as Lieutenant Governor under Tommy Thompson voted against this amendment after telling its supporters to “join the twenty first century already.”
Farrow compared running a college to making widgets, and said that too much faculty input in program restructuring would make the system less efficient.
Regent José Vásquez, one of the few regents with a background in education, stressed the differences between a public service and the private market.
“I’ve had the pleasure, the honor of working within a university system,” Vásquez said. “It’s not like making widgets.”
Regent Mark J. Bradley voted for the amendments, stating that prioritizing finances over education, departments could be forced to compete for scarce resources.
“It could pit two programs against each other,” Bradley said.
Bradley said the standards being adopted by the Regents are much lower than those in comparable universities like the University of Michigan.
“It’s in line with what one or two low ranked universities might be doing,” Bradley said.
The amendments brought forward by the system faculty were designed to bridge that gap.
Multiple faculty members and regents at the meeting on Thursday said the tenure changes are only part of a larger problem. They felt the larger issue was the financial crisis caused by massive budget cuts.
Vasquez said the changes made to undermine tenure were designed to create financial flexibility, but ultimately finances are not in the hands of the system.
“This isn’t going to give us any kind of money to address our fiscal crisis,” he said.
Wisconsin is one of the few states that has continued to cut funding for higher education, even as the economy recovers.
Multiple regents and faculty at the meeting stressed the importance of looking at the bigger picture. They said ultimately state support will decide whether or not the system remains a viable source of academic integrity.
“This is a public institution,” Vásquez said. “And the state needs to come to realize ‘what does public institution mean?’”