A task force charged with recommending a UW System policy to replace tenure provisions wiped from state law in Gov. Scott Walker’s latest budget wrapped up their work Wednesday uncertain if they had restored protections to academic freedom.
Some concerns revolved around how draft policies were worded, others around whether and how much members of the Board of Regents will tweak the language before adopting the policies forwarded to them.
Board of Regents vice president John Behling, chair of the task force, said UW System staff will refine the drafts of two separate policies on tenure and post-tenure review of faculty members crafted from task force members' comments. The language could change further at the hand of regents, he said.
The policies are moving forward to public circulation in January, consideration by the Board of Regents education committee in February and a vote by the full Board of Regents in March.
Task force member Bradley Seebach, an associate professor of biology at UW-LaCrosse, said in an interview that the policy as reviewed Wednesday did not afford the same level of protection to academic freedom as the law did.
Several faculty members on the task force shared Seebach’s concern that the policy as drafted by UW System general counsel Tom Stafford did not restrict layoffs of faculty tied to educational programming to when a program is discontinued, not merely modified, curtailed or redirected.
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.
Seebach also said that a separate draft policy on performance reviews of faculty who already have tenure did not allow a very robust grievance procedure.
Task force members last month had asked for definitive language on both layoffs from program changes and recourse of tenured professors receiving negative performance reviews.
Proof of the continuing deficiency of the draft policies was apparent even as the task force -- which include faculty, administrators and chancellors, completed its work, Seebach said.
“People around the table here are being extraordinarily cautious about what they say because every person at this table, except chancellors, is subject to review under policy we’re talking about,” Seebach said.
Christine Roth, an associate professor of English at UW-Oshkosh, shared Seebach’s concerns over the circumstances in which faculty layoffs would be allowed and said in an interview she looked forward to seeing that changed in a final draft of the tenure policy.
As to whether the policy restored protections to academic freedom, Roth said: “I hope so. The language is in there; I hope it’s sturdy enough.”
Robert Smith, an associate professor of history at UW-Milwaukee, asked drafters to heed the virtually unanimous support expressed for the addition of peer review in the procedures available to tenured faculty who receive a negative performance review.
Peer review is central “not only to the core of shared governance that so many of us hold dear, but also to quality research,” Smith said. The values of freedom of expression tenure seeks to protect "are vital to fundamental notions of a democratic society,” he said.
Behling told task force members that he and the staff policy drafters would consider the changes they sought regarding layoffs and accesss to peer review before a negative performance review is forwarded to top administrators.
Task force members were not empowered to vote on the draft policies forwarded Wednesday, but Behling told them that he knew of no other UW policy process that had given faculty such an influential role.
And in an essay published Tuesday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Behling said that “common sense” changes to tenure were unavoidable.
"Tenure may be the standard in higher education, but it is out of step with reality for most workers in other sectors,” Behling wrote.
“Tenure is critical bedrock of higher education because it ensures faculty have the freedom to express their views and direct their research without being targeted by their university leadership or colleagues. Every major university in this country has a strong tenure policy, and if Wisconsin does not, we will lose standing, we will lose faculty and we will lose the advantages our universities provide our economy,” he said.
“But we also must have a tenure policy that includes accountability and rewards performance,” Behling added.