Regents will not fight Wisconsin tenure changes

Faculty members say they feel abandoned

A Wisconsin Board of Regents committee decided Thursday the Regents will not formally oppose controversial changes to tenure policy made by state lawmakers.

The vote came amid protests, petitions, and impassioned pleas from faculty opposing the proposed tenure policy. A group of professors stood in a designated protest area at the back of the room, wearing tape over their mouths and holding signs with slogans like "Bring us to the table!" and "Our tenure is not your omni-bus to more 'flexibility!'"

The new tenure

At issue is a new tenure policy included by Gov. Scott Walker (R) in his state budget proposal. Originally, Walker planned to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin (UW) System—but balance the cuts, he said, by giving the system more autonomy by relaxing tenure policy, among other things.

Last week, Wisconsin's budget-writing committee reduced the proposed funding cuts to $250 million. But it also voted to remove tenure protection from state law and make it easier to lay off faculty.

The committee voted to adopt the state's tenure policy as the Regents' own. But the committee split on whether to adopt two measures proposed by the state legislature: one that changes the due process rights of tenured faculty who are laid off and a second, Section 39 (S39), which would allow administrators to lay off faculty for reasons other than "financial necessity."

Unable to agree, the committee decided to create a Regents task force to consider tenure and layoff policies—and decided not to ask state lawmakers to reconsider the changes in the budget.

S39 has been particularly concerning for many UW faculty members. It would grant the Regents the power to "terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment… due to a budget or program decision." It goes on to specify that faculty and staff could be laid off for "program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists under the law."

What makes Wisconsin special

Many professors say UW's uniquely strong tenure protections were what drew them there in the first place—and made them willing to accept a salary lower than what they could earn elsewhere.

Shared governance and tenure protection "make [Wisconsin] one of the best places to be a faculty member… those are very powerful," says Jerlando F. Jackson, a professor at UW-Madison.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, also a professor at UW-Madison, has been vocal about her opposition to the new tenure policy, even saying that she will be looking for a new job if it passes.

"Those of us that have stayed in this crazy state with all of this political stuff and really low wages, considerably, have stayed because it was different and our voices mattered," says Goldrick-Rab. "And they're taking that away."

Assistant Professor Jesse Stommel says he will also be seeking a new job if the proposed changes pass. "I'm intensely loyal," he says, "I don't abandon ship, but I looked around today and just saw water—no ship" (Simmons, Wisconsin State Journal, 6/5; Hillman, Inside Higher Ed, 6/5; Arnett, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 6/1).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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