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UW Regents protest (copy)

University of Wisconsin System educators and supporters, including Lorraine Malcoe (center), a  professor at UW-Milwaukee, protest at a meeting of the System's Board of Regents, saying their voices aren't being included in a discussion over the future of tenure. A regents committee discussing tenure changes reversed course and invited one of the protesters to address the board.

A University of Wisconsin faculty member, who presented more than 2,500 petitions to the members of the UW Board of Regents asking them to restore protections to tenure imperiled in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, said he was shocked when the panel voted to recommend a policy that gives administrators greater leeway to dismiss tenured faculty.

The recommended policy was adopted by the full Board of Regents Friday. If the state Legislature makes it part of the state budget, as recommended by the Joint Finance Committee, “it will be the beginning of the end of the university system in Wisconsin,” said David Vanness, an associate professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

UW faculty members showed up at the start of the regents’ two-day meeting at UW-Milwaukee last week in silent protest, with gags over their mouths to show how their academic freedom would be stifled if tenure is diluted.

Critics of the policy endorsed by the Board of Regents Friday say it will do just that because it fails to address a provision approved May 29 by the Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee that would allow tenured faculty members to be terminated “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

That same JFC motion would eliminate the chapter of state statues that currently governs operations at UW, including faculty tenure. Under current law, tenured faculty can be terminated only for cause or under financial emergency.

The resolution adopted by the Board of Regents last week explicitly restores UW’s ability to terminate tenured faculty for cause, but does not address the new basis for termination due to “budget or program decision.”

Regent Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, offered an amendment that would have called on the Legislature to strike the language on layoffs for budget or program changes. But Evers’ attempt was immediately superseded by a substitute amendment by Regent Gerald Whitburn that turned the matter of layoffs over to a regent task force on tenure.

Evers protested that the task force’s work would be pointless if the changes to tenure were adopted into state law.

The task force is due to make recommendations to the regents in April, 2016, months after the 2015-16 budget bill must be adopted.

Vanness remarked on how quickly the mood of regents on tenure seemed to shift when he appealed to the board’s Education Committee on June 4. “It was shocking see how it turned from a standing ovation – with all the regents, chancellors applauding — for the statement I made in defense of tenure to the substitute amendment being offered,” Vanness said.

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Regents in March adopted a resolution saying that if the legislature adopts the governor’s proposal to remove tenure from the statutes; they would adopt policies that reflect existing statutory language.

Ray Cross, president of UW System, last week reiterated his support for tenure. “We want to guarantee that tenure remains as a tenet and a pillar of higher education,” he said.

Critics of attempts to dilute tenure say it will stifle academic freedom, make it difficult to recruit and retain top faculty, and lead to the loss of research funding and the statewide economic growth it generates.

PROFS, the lobbying organization for UW-Madison faculty, said it will keep trying to remove language that dilutes tenure from the budget bill headed for approval by the Legislature.

“PROFS will continue to work with legislators to try to remove the (language on dismissal for budget or programming decisions) from the JFC’s omnibus motion. It will of course be much more difficult without the hoped-for backing from the regents,” Grant Petty, president of the group’s steering committee said.

There is no recourse but to appeal to the reason of legislators, Vanness said. “Do they really want to be the ones who pull the trigger on this?” he asked.

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