Regents OK tenure policy despite faculty concerns

UW System President Ray Cross dismissed concerns from faculty that tenure is now weaker in Wisconsin.

The regents yesterdayvoted 14-2 for new policies governing tenure, but not before a spirited debate. Faculty in the audience, some dressed in commencement attire, held up a sign after the vote that read “get politics out of education” and applauded regents who took their side.

The Association of American University Professors, meanwhile, called the policies “the latest step in an ongoing attack” on the UW.

But Cross said the regents took a “solid move forward” with their action.

“The new policies are a reaffirmation of the state’s long-term commitment to protect academic freedom, freedom of speech and the pursuit of truth,” Cross told reporters after the vote.

The policies, he said, will help the public and some lawmakers who mistakenly think tenure is “a job for life.”

“Every time I hear that, I cringe because I know that’s not true,” Cross said.

The change in tenure policy stems from the most recent state budget, which removed prior tenure protections from state statutes. For months, a UW System task force put together a policy that would take its place, and the regents approved it yesterday with some minor amendments.

Faculty raised several concerns with one of the policies, which lays out the process for layoffs if there’s a financial emergency or if their program is discontinued.

The debate centered on what “program discontinuance” should mean. Faculty and some regents wanted educational, rather than financial, reasons to be prioritized when programs are ended.

UW-Eau Claire political scientist Geoffrey Peterson said approving those changes would “help put to rest concerns” from faculty that the regents don’t care about academic freedom. Otherwise, he said, the UW System will struggle in its efforts to retain and attract top faculty.

“We cannot achieve that goal without a clear and unequivocal statement from the Board of Regents supporting tenure and academic freedom,” Peterson told the regents.

This week, UW-Madison said it has spent nearly $9 million to prevent faculty from getting poached, and officials at other campuses say they’re also struggling with the issue.

But Cross said during the meeting it’s “almost impossible” to separate educational and financial reasons, noting low enrollment in a program is a financial concern.

“I’m not sure you can bifurcate those in a way that pulls them apart,” Cross said.

Regent Tony Evers led a failed effort to change the layoff policy and said he was “saddened” by the debate.

Evers, the elected state superintendent of public schools, introduced three amendments backed by faculty. One of them got an 8-8 vote and wasn’t adopted, while the other two failed 11-5.

The first amendment, Evers said, would have strengthened protections for faculty when their programs are discontinued. Under the policy, faculty can be laid off “only in extraordinary circumstances and after all feasible alternatives have been considered.” Evers’ amendment would have changed “considered” to “pursued.”

But Regent John Behling, who led the tenure task force, said he wants to ensure chancellors have “the flexibility to get through tough times,” adding “changing ‘considered’ to ‘pursued’ waters down the policy.”

Evers’ two other amendments would have decreased the role of financial reasons when a program is discontinued. The UW System, he said, is “in the business of education, [so] educational considerations should be a priority.”

Evers, along with Regent Jose Vasquez, voted against the layoff policy. Vasquez questioned the need for it, saying chancellors haven’t told him it’s “difficult to manage” their campuses.

“I feel that we have been forced to address things that did not need to be addressed, that were working,” he said.

See an earlier story on faculty retention issues