The UW-Madison Faculty Senate was nearly unanimous Tuesday as it called on lawmakers to strike budget language that would decrease faculty influence and make it easier for tenured professors to be fired.
But faculty members appeared to be of two minds on the tone they should take with a Board of Regents that many don’t trust to do what they believe is the right thing.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she understood that professors were angry and some were looking for positions elsewhere, but she urged them to have faith that the board understands the importance of academic freedom at the university and will create policies that protect it.
“Tenure exists not to protect individuals, but to protect ideas,” Blank said.
Blank answered questions and absorbed criticism during the meeting attended by more than 300 faculty and staff members who overflowed a lecture hall in the campus Health Sciences Learning Center.
Several professors expressed doubt about Blank’s hope that the Board of Regents, which last week voted against urging the Republicans who run the Legislature to reverse the budget provisions, would create policies to replace the state tenure law with protections like those found at peer universities.
But Donald Downs, a recently retired professor of political science, law and journalism, warned against taking a harsh tone with the board.
“The Regents are all we have right now,” Downs said. “We can’t be in the business of disparaging the people who are our last hope.”
Downs earned a round of applause when he said the university needs to be inclusive as it works to persuade the state — Republicans included — that tenure and shared governance are good for everyone, not just professors.
Others made the point that protecting faculty from being fired for pursuing unpopular ideas allowed the university to provide the strongest possible research to advance the state’s interests.
State law currently says faculty or academic staff appointments may be terminated for just cause or in a financial emergency. The proposal approved by the budget committee would add situations “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification” or “redirection.”
Economics professor Steven Durlauf said he was voting against the resolution because it implied criticism of university leaders that is unwarranted. Durlauf said he saw arrogance and elitism behind faculty outrage, and that the university needed to be constructive and not derogatory as it made its case.
But many in the hall laughed when Durlauf said, “McCarthyism is dead,” and several sparred verbally with Blank.
Michael Bell, a sociology professor who directs the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, asked Blank what would happen if the Board of Regents decided to override its own tenure policy by wrongly firing someone.
“The firestorm that would result from something like that would be unprecedented,” Blank said. Bell shot back, “We see many things that are unprecedented.”
The resolution passed by the Faculty Senate called on the Legislature’s finance committee to remove provisions from the proposed state budget that would excise tenure from state law and weaken faculty participation in decision-making. After the committee finishes its work, the budget goes to the state Assembly and Senate and to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. Walker initially proposed the tenure and governance changes and the Joint Finance Committee voted for them May 29.
The faculty resolution also called on Blank, the board and University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross to use all means at their disposal to influence lawmakers to change the budget bill. But the Regents on Friday voted against urging changes in the budget bill.
On Tuesday, a UW-Madison lobbyist offered lawmakers revised language on when faculty could be fired but Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who co-sponsored the tenure and job protection provisions in the budget, said she wasn’t interested in changing it.
The budget committee’s actions have drawn national attention and raised concerns on campus that it will become a less desirable place for professors to conduct groundbreaking research.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.