Tenure policy proposals headed to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents meeting next week don’t reflect a key change sought by a task force of representatives from UW campuses across the state and won’t adequately protect academic freedom if adopted, critics say.
Proposed policy does not explicitly prohibit faculty layoffs due to changes to educational programs short of out-right discontinuation, critics say in the most common complaint posted on the Regents website's comment section.
Several members of the Tenure Policy Task Force had urged that those prohibitions be added during their work identifying essential elements of policies on tenure, post-tenure review and layoff of tenured faculty. The task force was formed after Gov. Scott Walker removed tenure from state law as part of his 2016-17 budget bill.
Tenure task force chair John Behling said at the final meeting of the group in December that the requested change regarding layoffs would be considered. But it did not make it into the draft that will be presented to the education committee of the Board of Regents on Feb. 4, the first day of a two-day session in Madison.
The full Board of Regents typically acts on committee recommendations on the second day of a session. But Behling said last month that the tenure policies would not be acted on until the board’s March meeting to allow more time for public discussion and debate.
The agenda now calls for the unusual step of the Education Committee meeting to discuss and act on the tenure proposals at an all-regent session after adjournment of the Board of Regents regular meeting on Friday.
UW faculty members have said allowing for layoffs to accommodate program changes short of discontinuation raises the risk that faculty will be targeted for engaging in unpopular speech or controversial lines of research.
The proposed policy on layoffs addresses only the process for laying off tenured faculty when education programs are discontinued. Failing to mention other changes to education programs in the policy, means that state statute will control those situations, one commenter pointed out.
Chapter 36 of state law authorizes the Board of Regents to “terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.”
So, the policy as presented to the board of regents, “leaves unaddressed the greatest harm to individual faculty members’ tenure protection” and “will not offer the assurance that the UW System institutions need in order to attract and keep the best faculty,” said another anonymous commenter.
The omission is harmful to the “surety of academic freedom, no matter the prefatory statement” of the policy, he said.
That statement declares that faculty layoff “shall not be based on conduct, expressions, or beliefs on the faculty member’s part that are constitutionally protected or protected by the principles of academic freedom.”
Those words won’t head off professional or legal investigations should faculty be laid off for financial emergency or program discontinuance, said David Vanness, an associate professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and president of the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
“It will be up to professional organizations like AAUP and/or the courts to decide,” Vanness said in an email message.
He said the policy on layoffs “conflates bona fide ‘educational considerations’ with ‘financial resources’ and ‘market demands’" in a way that “seems designed to use chronic underfunding as a tool to allow UW System to break its binding commitments to tenured faculty in order to reshape our universities into vocational learning centers.”
Vanness said the policy reflects what he dubbed Walker’s “New Wisconsin idea,” under which the university’s mission “is only to train the workforce for the jobs of today, not to search for the truth and lay the groundwork for the industries of tomorrow.”
UW’s aspirational mission of searching for truth, the Wisconsin Idea, was eliminated in an early version of the Walker budget bill.