Amid tenure debate, UW System campuses say faculty departures rise

University of Wisconsin System faculty declared tenure all but dead this summer when GOP lawmakers removed it from state statutes.

Months later, some say that’s still the case, even under a new policy the Board of Regents will vote on this week. Unless the policy sees some changes, critics say, it will continue to drive the UW System’s top researchers and professors away from its 27 institutions.

UW-Madison has put on an aggressive effort to retain its faculty, spending nearly $9 million in successful counter-offers. Yet chancellors and provosts across the UW System say they’re also struggling with either retaining or attracting faculty, but have fewer resources than the flagship campus to sweeten their offers.

Though UW officials say tenure protections will remain strong, they note the debate has contributed to low morale among faculty, as it comes on top of years of being underpaid and $250 million in cuts to the UW System in the latest budget.

“We’re trying to remind people that excellence still exists, but we are at a tipping point in this state,” said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt. “It’s serious what’s been happening, and I think most institutions are really at the edge.”

The biggest recent departure came this week, when outspoken UW-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab announced she’s heading to Temple University.

Goldrick-Rab, who researches college access for low-income students, highlighted the tenure policy regents will vote on this week as the key reason why she’s leaving. That policy, she wrote in a blog post, would open the door for administrators to end her program and lay her off.

“Terrified sheep make lousy teachers, lousy scholars, and lousy colleagues,” she wrote. “And today at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thanks to #FakeTenure, I’m surrounded by terrified sheep.”

Not so, said UW System President Ray Cross, who noted his frustration when faculty say “tenure is weakened.” Faculty are indeed leaving, he said. But that’s largely because the system doesn’t pay its faculty enough, not because of changes to tenure.

“Those things are causes to make faculty nervous. I understand that,” Cross said. “And much of that is the result of political distrust that exists. I got that. But the real reason I think faculty are being lured away is compensation packages. That concerns me a lot. That really does.”

It’s hard to determine how many faculty are leaving or declining to come, as most campuses don’t gather data on this consistently. Even UW-Madison didn’t track this data in real-time until the issue got attention this school year; it typically waited until the end of hiring season to compile an annual report.

That means much of the evidence elsewhere in the UW System is anecdotal, such as faculty writing letters of recommendation to younger colleagues looking to leave.

Or there’s a professor position at UW-Stevens Point’s Department of Physics and Astronomy that saw 13 applicants instead of the usual 50, said professor Ken Menningen. Menningen served on the UW System task force that developed the proposed tenure policy.

UW-Eau Claire, though, is “absolutely” seeing more and more faculty jumping ship, Schmidt said. His faculty, he said, largely haven’t asked for counter-offers because they know the university can’t match competing salary offers, which have been at least 30 percent higher.

At UW-Whitewater, the campus isn’t facing many faculty departures, but it’s seeing some of its top choices for open positions withdrawing their names, said Provost John Stone.

“People will go through the search process, and when push comes to shove, they get cold feet,” he said. “What we don’t know is how many people were not even going to apply because of what they’ve read about what’s going on.”

Madison spent almost $9 million to retain faculty

UW-Madison has been largely successful in avoiding faculty raids, but it’s cost the university nearly $9 million.

The university has gotten 46 cases so far, and it’s succeeded in 40, according to records UW-Madison provided to About $730,000 of that spending has come through salary bumps, and $8.2 million came from increases in spending for research equipment, assistants and the like.

Among the faculty receiving the highest pay raises were Jon Pevehouse, a leading international relations scholar who got a 30 percent raise, or $52,603, and $139,000 in research funds. His wife, political scientist Jessica Weeks, got a $14,000 raise and almost $100,000 in research funds. Both were among the five international relations scholars that the University of Minnesota tried poaching.

Also getting a high raise was labor economist Christopher Taber, whose recruitment from Northwestern was touted by UW-Madison in 2010. He’ll now make $318,000 after the $43,638 raise and will have $50,000 more in research funds.

Sociologist Marcia Carlson got the highest raise at $56,421 to make $170,000, along with nearly $241,000 in research funds. And political scientist Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center, will make $175,000 after getting a $32,186 raise. He also got $100,000 in research funds.

Others didn’t see large raises but got hundreds of thousands of dollars of research funds, including three oncologists who combined for about $1.8 million: Christopher Bradfield, Elaine Alarid and Shigeki Miyamoto.

Emery Bresnick, the UW-Madison Blood Research Program director, is getting $450,000 in research funds, as is astrophysicist Ellen Zweibel. And 22 other professors will get at least $100,000 in research funds.

Those numbers, though, only include cases where the university’s central office got involved to offer additional research funds, said Karl Scholz, the dean of UW-Madison’s College of Letters and Science. That means the numbers don’t reflect cases across departments that involved only pay raises, he said. They also only include cases that have been concluded, not those that remain active.

Still, he noted faculty have turned down offers from top universities such as Harvard, Duke, Cornell, Northwestern, Princeton, Oxford and MIT.

“If anyone ever doubts that we are a great university, there’s no better evidence than that,” he said.

Faculty want changes to proposed tenure policy

The departures will only go up if the regents approve the proposed policy on Thursday, some faculty say. But Cross and others dispute that.

Noel Radomski, a UW-Madison researcher who directs the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said the proposed policy is largely on par with protections other universities offer. That means the reality is “not going to be as severe” as what some critics predict, he said.

Donald Downs, a retiring UW-Madison political scientist who’s an expert in academic freedom, agreed.

“The regents have done a pretty good job so far,” he said.

The state budget, passed last summer, removed the previous tenure protections from state statutes. It also added in new language permitting regents to lay off faculty “due to a budget or program decision” that either changes the direction of a program or ends it entirely.

That change drew instant rebukes from faculty — and national headlines — as an attack on academic freedom. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, ran an op-ed from UW-Madison population health sciences assistant professor David Vanness titled “The Withering of a Once-Great State University.”

The tenure policy the regents are taking up Thursday is significantly narrower.

That’s because the UW System “would be an anomaly” if it laid off faculty due to changes to a program, putting the system at a disadvantage when competing with other universities for top talent, Cross said.

Faculty groups, though, are pushing for amendments to the policy, which still lets the regents lay off faculty due to “program discontinuance.” Though that’s allowed at many institutions, faculty say those institutions ensure programs are discontinued only for educational reasons.

The proposed policy, faculty point out, defines educational considerations to include “student and market demand and societal needs.” It also discusses the need to reallocate money to other programs through an “analysis of financial resources.”

In faculty’s view, that’s a mixing of educational considerations and financial ones, when the UW System already has a policy in place to lay faculty off during financial emergencies.

“It really opens up the door for administration to have fairly politically-motivated hiring and firing,” said Rachel Ida Buff, a UW-Milwaukee history professor who leads the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Cross opposes the faculty’s proposed amendments, saying educational and financial considerations can’t be separated. A program that’s seeing consistent enrollment declines, he said, is not only an educational issue but a financial one, as the money spent on it could go elsewhere.

“You cannot expect us to continue to employ the faculty member that we cannot find a job for, even though we have pursued that diligently,” he said. “If we did maintain this, it would be a job for life, and that’s not the intent.”

That, though, is unwelcome news for James Hartwick, a UW-Whitewater associate professor who’s led an effort from faculty to send amendments to the regents. One of those amendments would ensure the regents prioritize educational considerations over financial ones when deciding whether a program should be discontinued.

Cross said there’s room for campuses to do this when they craft their own policies, but Hartwick said he’s hopeful Cross and the regents “will see the wisdom” in including the language into the systemwide policy.

“This is a watershed moment,” Hartwick said. “We have to protect academic freedom, or Wisconsin’s university system will become a sinking ship.”

— By Polo Rocha,