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Experts say changes to tenure, layoff protections and shared governance included in the state budget lay out a vision for a corporate style of management at the University of Wisconsin System. But, they say, there is no guarantee that style will be embraced or used by campuses and chancellors.

The state budget signed by Gov. Scott Walker last week envisions broad changes to how the University of Wisconsin System is run, experts say, allowing for a more corporate management structure that empowers chancellors while professors with fewer protections take a back seat.

It’s a model that has incensed faculty, drawing national attention to the UW System as legislators stripped tenure from state law, weakened shared governance and expanded justifications for laying off professors.

But there is no guarantee that the top-down governance prescribed in the state budget will become a reality on campus, said Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.

“Those faculty or staff or students that say, ‘It’s the end of the world,’ that’s not appropriate. That’s incorrect,” Radomski said. “What is correct is there’s an uncertainty.”

UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank says she will keep following shared governance procedures that are already in place, and officials at her campus and the UW System have started working to enshrine faculty protections into policies.

That process will test the trust between faculty and administrators as the System works to absorb a $250 million cut to state funding. It’s also expected to make recruiting and retaining top professors more difficult.

Depending on how UW navigates the changes and what effect they have on the System’s reputation, the budget provisions could make waves beyond Wisconsin, as officials in other states and university systems consider adopting similar policies.

“It is being watched within the higher education community,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It’s also being watched by policymakers elsewhere to see its impact.”

Top-down model

Walker touted the changes in his veto message, saying the 2015-17 budget “modernizes the concept of tenure” by having the UW System write protections into Regents policy, and “reforms shared governance” by giving chancellors greater authority.

University officials can now lay off tenured faculty “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” Previously, professors could only be laid off in a financial emergency or for serious misconduct.

Critics of the budget also say the shared governance changes demote faculty, staff and students, putting them in a “subordinate” role in decision-making.

But legislators and supporters of the policies say they will allow the university to operate more efficiently, helping campus administrators control costs and manage the deep cuts in state aid.

Nassirian said the changes could create a top-down model for running the university that emulates systems used in business, moving away from the former structure in which faculty, staff and students played a greater role.

“It basically creates a much more corporate model of management where you make judgments based on the opinion of management,” Nassirian said.

Blank: No plans to change

While that model is in the statute, it’s unclear if chancellors and campuses will embrace it.

Blank, who had urged Walker to veto the layoff and shared governance language in the budget, said the provisions only authorize the university system to make those changes, and there is no mandate that she use the power she has been granted.

“It is up to us to decide how and when we would use any of this authority,” Blank said in a recent interview.

Faculty policies at UW-Madison laying out shared governance rules are still in place, Blank said, and she plans to keep following them in the years ahead.

A new committee at UW-Madison has been tasked with writing campus policies that adopt stricter conditions for laying off faculty.

That committee is set to make its recommendations in September, and Blank said she hopes to have layoff protections in place by the end of the year.

“We’ve functioned this way very effectively for years, and I see no reason not to continue (to) function this way,” Blank said said.

At the state level, a UW System task force that will write tenure language for Regents policy will start meeting in August.

Trust a concern

Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said the true impact of the budget changes will be known only when the process of writing the new policies is finished.

Ultimately, McGuinness said he did not believe the new policies would lead to massive changes at UW-Madison but acknowledged this uncertainty also comes at a tense time for the university.

Some on campus view state legislators and Walker with suspicion, and several faculty members have criticized UW administrators — from the Board of Regents to Blank and System president Ray Cross — for not taking more action to oppose the new policies.

When those officials say they will keep the same protections for faculty despite the freedom to change them, “There’s a certain amount of ‘trust me’ to that,” said David Vanness, an associate professor at the School of Medicine and Public Health.

Vanness and other faculty members say they are also concerned that the state statute’s more permissive stance toward professor layoffs will trump whatever policies the university adopts.

“For us to trust that the current system will be maintained I think is just not realistic,” Vanness said.

‘Targeted raids’ of faculty

Blank said some of the national attention on the budget provisions has over-simplified what the changes will mean for UW, particularly criticizing those who have said the state has wiped out tenure entirely.

But the perception of the changes can have an impact on its own.

There likely won’t be a mass exodus of tenured faculty, several experts said, but the policies could have some professors thinking differently about their future at UW.

The publicity “puts a target on our back” as other universities look to draw UW faculty away, Blank said, and it will cost money to keep those professors on campus.

“We are at very high risk of a large number of targeted raids,” Blank said. “We’re going to have to spend quite a bit of money on retaining faculty.”

When it comes to recruitment, Nassirian said a school like UW-Madison will always find professors. The question is if UW will still attract the best candidates.

“If you’re a faculty member with multiple job offers … why would you take a job at UW, given the significantly lesser protections you might get?” he said.

It’s not just university recruiters who will be watching UW — policymakers and administrators across the country will have their eyes on the university system as well, many of them wondering if similar changes would be employed in their states and schools.

The structure of governance detailed in the state budget is rarely seen in higher education, Nassirian said. Examples of similar models cited by experts included George Mason University, Florida State and for-profit colleges.

Vanness said UW-Madison earned a great national reputation while having strong protections for faculty.

If UW’s protections are a serious problem in need of fixing, Vanness said, you could say the same thing about those at other institutions as well.

“That probably has a lot of other universities scared,” he said. “Are the same arguments going to be made for them?”

How the UW System’s national reputation fares over the next few years will likely determine whether similar policies are sought elsewhere, Nassirian said.

If the changes are implemented and UW stays well-regarded — if officials show the quality of an institution won’t suffer when you reduce the role of faculty — Nassirian said there would be no reason not to adopt that model.

But if the changes are not successful, UW loses top faculty and the System’s reputation and place in national rankings drops, Nassirian said, the policies could be far less attractive, and Wisconsin could have to revisit whether they’re worth following.


Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.