Rebecca Blank

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank in her office in Bascom Hall on campus in June.

UW System President Ray Cross’ about-face on a campus-specific tenure policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison makes the Board of Regents look bad, abets faculty seeking extreme provisions and potentially delays adoption of a policy, threatening faculty recruitment, said Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

Cross also undermined her ability to broker agreement on tenure issues among UW-Madison faculty, Blank said in an Oct. 22 email to Regent John Behling.

Behling chairs a task force working on a system-wide tenure policy to replace the protections in state law wiped away in Gov. Scott Walker’s biennial budget.

“We were assured by Ray and others that Madison could write policies, which would be reviewed by the BOR (Board of Regents) for approval,” Blank wrote to Behling.

Blank was responding to a memo from Cross last week that said regents “will not be in a position to approve campus-specific” policies until they adopt system-wide policies. And then campus rules will be considered within the “controlling limits of system-wide policies.”

Being told to set aside a UW-Madison tenure policy proposal after months of work, discussion and debate “will be widely interpreted as the faculty process being undercut by the BOR,” Blank wrote hours before discussion of Cross’ memo drew swift opposition from faculty at a meeting of the system-wide tenure task force.

“Those voices that have argued for more extreme policies (and have argued that the BOR is less-than-trustworthy on these issues) will be strongly reinforced, and those of us who have been trying to shepherd this in a responsible way toward resolution are likely to lose effectiveness,” Blank cautioned of superseding campus level policy-making.

The 2015-2017 budget bill removed UW System tenure provisions from state law, to be adopted as policy by the Board of Regents. The budget bill also added language giving university administrators more latitude to lay off or fire tenured faculty for budget issues or changes to academic programs.

UW-Madison faculty have been working on policy specifying how and under what circumstances financial emergency can be declared and govern layoffs under that scenario, as well as the reassignment of faculty when academic programs are discontinued.

The proposed policy will be presented to members of the Faculty Senate for adoption at the group’s meeting Monday. System-wide and campus efforts also are underway on a controversial post-tenure review policy that could provide for termination of underperforming faculty.

Blank is concerned about longer term consequences. “The November faculty senate meeting could well result in some very difficult outcomes – and spill over into our efforts to strengthen the tenure review process as well,” she told Behling. Approval of a tenure policy soon is crucial to have it in place as the retention/recruiting season for next fall gets underway. “We have extensive retention problems here at Madison,” Blank wrote. “Major mobilization among our faculty on this issue at this point in time will make those retentions even more difficult.”

The goal for the system-wide effort is to have a tenure policy in place by April.

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Blank related her sense that faculty were organizing around tenure issues, preparing to challenge the process that she has been “pushing” with the help of the University Committee, executives of the Faculty Senate who are bringing the proposed policy to the membership for a vote.

University Committee member Ruth Litovsky, a professor of communication sciences, said Thursday that while Cross’ turnaround on campus tenure policies “came out of left field,” she believes it is important to send a policy proposal now to the Board of Regents.

“It shows our priorities and engages the faculty as part of the process,” Litovsky said. “We’re working with the Board of Regents and hope the BOR keeps the best interests of the university at heart and makes sure tenure is protected.”

Dave Vanness, an associate professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health, said after the tenure task force meeting where news broke of Cross’ change in direction that it is time for faculty to join together.

“This is not what we signed up for in our employment contracts,” Vanness said. “It’s time the faculty realized that this affects everybody and stood up to be heard.”

Cross’ office released a statement Thursday saying that the Board of Regents expects to adopt a broad tenure policy “consistent with the policies at comparable institutions and in line with national standards.”

“We also expect that some institutions will want to adopt specific language in their faculty policies and procedures documents that indicates how the regent policy will unfold at their institution,” it said.

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