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The UW System Board of Regents will vote Thursday on controversial tenure policies.

A right-leaning think tank has issued a report that cites its controversial survey of University of Wisconsin faculty and urges the UW Board of Regents to make campus officials prove that they need tenure at all.

“The Trouble with Tenure” was released by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute just as members of the Board of Regents prepare to vote March 10 on a package of new tenure policies for UW campuses. The report endorses many of the provisions of draft policies developed with input from a Tenure Policy Task Force and endorsed last month by the board's education committee.

“Regents, though, can do more than their task force is recommending to make sure leaders of individual campuses have the flexibility they need to be responsive to students and the job market,” WPRI president Mike Nichols wrote in an introduction to the report. 

Individual campuses and UW Extension, “which vary greatly in their focus on research or on instruction or on community interaction — should be asked to articulate exactly how and when tenure is helpful and when it isn’t,” Nichols said.

WPRI sponsored a survey of UW faculty on tenure last spring, conducted by University of Chicago professor William Howell, that was criticized by some faculty as unreliable because of its design and implementation.

Their fears that the surveys would be used to support further changes in tenure — already weakened by removal from state law in Scott Walker’s 2016-2017 budget bill — appear to have been founded, Inside Higher Ed reported.

UW-Madison faculty member David Vanness told the online education news website that the report seemed timed to influence regents before their vote next week and that WPRI seemed concerned that the board “may not use its full authority granted by [the change in state law] to fire tenured faculty essentially at will.”

The WPRI report “fails to recognize the economic value of tenure, and the need to protect academic freedom against meddling by powerful political and business interests,” as well as the role tenure has played in the rise of the American university over time, said Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences and president of the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

WPRI also recommends that legislators remove a guiding principal to the layoff of tenured faculty that survives in state law: seniority.

“Retaining faculty simply because they have been on the job longer — with no consideration of how up to date their knowledge and skills are — does not help keep Wisconsin’s universities in sync with the rapidly changing needs of its students or the marketplace. Quite the opposite,” the report says.

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The WPRI document also includes the results of a separate survey of academic faculty — instructors who do not have tenure — at several UW campuses.

Well over two-thirds of non-tenured instructors said that tenure is a good indicator of the quality of an instructors research achievements, but just over half said tenure was a good indicator of classroom performance or service to the community.

“The gist of our results is that tenure matters in the eyes of the non-tenure-track academic staff members,” said the report. “They perceive it to be positively associated with research by faculty, but they are less convinced that it is a good measure of teaching quality or service to the community. Whether its benefits are in line with the costs it imposes is beyond the scope of the data from this survey.”

On its website, WPRI says it "is guided by a belief that competitive free markets, limited government, private initiative, and personal responsibility are essential to our democratic way of life."

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