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John Behling, Board of Regents vice president (left), and UW System President Ray Cross during a meeting at UW-Madison's Union South Friday.

A controversial set of policies governing tenure at University of Wisconsin System schools that critics say threaten academic freedom were endorsed without debate Friday by a Board of Regents committee.

“I’m stunned,” UW-Madison professor David Vanness said of the swift approval. “I wonder whether due diligence is being done.”

The education committee’s action left him “not optimistic” about action before the full board, said Vanness, president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors and an outspoken critic of the tenure policies.

The policies will go to the full Board of Regents for action in March, where adoption of committee recommendations typically is routine.

But regent Mark Bradley said after Friday’s session that he wants to open the tenure issue for discussion before the full board because he is concerned that the policies recommended by the education committee weaken tenure in ways that could harm the university.

“If the goal is to recruit and retain the best in order to provide the best service, then we need to look at these proposals and have a discussion is it true or not that we are falling behind what are generally considered accepted standards in the academic world,” Bradley said.

In her remarks to regents Thursday, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said that uncertainty over whether tenure is being diluted at the university is hurting its national and international reputation and is costing millions to keep faculty targeted for poaching by other schools.

Regent Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, missed Friday’s action of the education of committee, of which he is a member, because of a long-standing commitment at a conference in Washington D.C., he said. But he wrote to fellow regents expressing his concern about the tenure policies.

“Like many of you, I have heard the voices of our faculty express their worry that this language does not yet meet the standards they would hope to see in an institution of higher education that values tenure. I share those concerns,” Evers said in an email.

Evers attached a comparison of the UW proposals that itemizes what AAUP sees as provisions that don’t meet that organization’s standards and asked the committee to consider them.

“While the board may feel that the policies in front of us protect and recreate tenure much as it was before, our faculty do not believe that to be the case,” Evers wrote. “I also believe it reflects on our commitment to a system of shared governance to further respond to and engage our faculty on this matter.”

Faculty members critical of the policies say they give regents and university chancellors too much latitude in determining that financial circumstances or program changes warrant layoffs, putting those involved in controversial speech or research at risk.

The regents’ session Friday was punctuated by protests. Faculty protested the proposed changes to tenure policy in a demonstration outside Union South then trooped inside for a few rounds of “Solidarity Forever” outside the regents’ meeting room.

Students protesting the climate on UW campuses for students of color later disrupted the regents' session. Sitting in the audience in the meeting room, they wielded protest signs and shouted “Power!” When they read a list of demands over the voices of regents, president Regina Millner gavelled a brief adjournment while the protesters were led out.

The tenure policies were developed with input from a task force of faculty and administrators from campuses throughout the state that was formed after Gov. Scott Walker removed tenure from state law as part of his 2016-17 budget bill.

The final drafts of what are separate policies on tenure, post-tenure review and procedures for tenured faculty layoffs because of financial emergency or program discontinuance that were presented to the board of regents were finalized by the group’s chair, regent John Behling and UW System staff counsel Tom Stafford.

Behling told regents the proposed policies “demonstrate accountability, which is what the public want to see from the system.”

Proposed policy does not explicitly prohibit faculty layoffs due to changes to educational programs short of out-right discontinuation, although several members of the tenure policy task force had urged that those prohibitions be added.

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There has been disagreement among tenure task force members over whether the regent policy adequately addresses appropriate reasons for layoffs. State statute allows regents to lay off tenured faculty for reasons of program “curtailment, modification, or redirection.”

Stafford told reporters Friday that if the proposed policies are adopted, regents would need to vote to change the policy before exercising their statutory power to lay off faculty for program changes short of discontinuation.

UW-Madison faculty leadership also wrote to regents this week outlining their concerns. Faculty who served on the tenure task force and members of the executive committee of the UW-Madison Faculty Senate said that policy muddles program changes for financial reasons with changes for educational reasons, a concern also raised by AAUP.

Clearing up any confusion between financial and educational reasons for discontinuing programs would protect academic freedom, they said.

In remarks to regents, Behling said the proposed policies will provide a strong tenure policy and “allow us continue to compete in the global education marketplace.”

He said the policies would hold campus leaders and faculty accountable and enable the university to operate more efficiently and effectively.

“Without demonstrated accountability, our budget prospects in the future will not improve," he said.

Walker cut state funding to the university by $250 million in the current budget.

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