The recent changes to Wisconsin's tenure system are not just about job security—they also affect academic freedom, University of Wisconsin (UW) Colleges and Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen writes for The Conversation.
For decades, tenure was written into state law but now will instead be a policy approved by the UW Board of Regents—an 18-person board that is mostly appointed by the governor.
New UW Colleges, Extension chancellor faces a nearly 20% budget cut
This month, state lawmakers approved a measure that would cut $250 million from the UW system while granting it more autonomy—and more flexibility to lay off tenured faculty.
The plan has been controversial since Gov. Scott Walker (R) proposed the first version of it, which included a $300 million funding cut. Ray Cross, UW System president, threatened to resign if an earlier version of the proposal passed and chancellors warned of layoffs.
Legislators are finalizing the budget before sending it off to vote—and faculty members say they are angry and worried. Some are already preparing to leave.
'A pillar of U.S. higher education'
Tenure not only ensures employment for faculty members, it also protects their research and findings. It also serves as a way to keep professors around, which ultimately leads to major donations from alumni, she says.
"As we know, new developments, new thinking, and new knowledge are often uncomfortable, unpopular, and controversial," writes Sandeen, using stem cell research, interpretations of urban poor, and climate change as examples of controversial topics.
"Academic freedom provides protection to these ideas. It is a pillar of U.S. higher education, one that separates us from many other higher educational systems around the world," she says.
The question that remains, she writes, is how to protect academic freedom for those who do not have tenure.
As of 2009, a majority of faculty members nationwide were contingent—and ineligible for tenure. And increasingly faculty members are being hired to perform specific tasks—such as developing course outlines, choosing course materials, and lecturing. Those individuals generally do not make the tenure track.
Faculty without tenure have to be more careful not to offend their students, says one former adjunct professor
"Today we have a tiered structure of faculty, with some carrying out different functions and rewarded with different employment protections and different levels of academic freedom," says Sandeen.
In Wisconsin, a policy for non-tenured instructors protects their academic freedom.
"Faculty are the heart and soul of an institution," Sandeen acknowledges. But perhaps, she says, more needs to be done to protect, "define, and extend academic freedom beyond the tenured ranks" (Sandeen, The Conversation, 6/25).
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