No-confidence votes spreading across the nation

There have been 150 no-confidence initiatives at US universities since 1989

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Faculty Senate's recent vote of no-confidence in President Ray Cross and the system's Board of Regents reflects a growing trend nationwide, Pat Schneider reports for the Capital Times.

UW's tenure troubles

Last summer, the state stripped the UW system of its notably strong tenure and shared-governance protections.

Wisconsin was the only state that protected tenure in state law, but the new plan allows the Board of Regents to write its own tenure policies. The move was pitched as a way to give campuses more autonomy and the ability to deal with budget cuts. The change in law was accompanied by a $250 million cut to state funding.

The controversial move prompted some faculty to leave for other systems and raised tensions between academics and administrators. 

Under the new system, each campus will have its own tenure policies—which some faculty members argue will result in uneven protections across the state.

UW officials will also now be able to lay off tenured faculty for financial or educational reasons. They can also discipline professors who don't meet post-tenure review expectations.

Wisconsin is not alone

Institutions across the country are facing many of the same issues riling the UW system. According to university governance expert Sean McKinnis, faculty are becoming strained as universities increasingly contend with shrinking budgets, greater demands for accountability, and pressure to boost private funding. Many faculty also object to what McKinnis describes as "a more corporate type of leadership" common in higher education management today.

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These factors have culminated in a wave of no-confidence votes in recent years. McKinnis keeps a database of no-confidence votes at U.S. universities that lists 150 no-confidence initiatives since 1989 and shows a rising number in recent years:

  • Seven in 2012;
  • 10 in 2013;
  • 21 in 2014; and
  • 14 in 2015.

Why a no-confidence vote matters

In the cases that McKinnis has studied, about half of presidents who receive no-confidence votes step down within a year. While their departures are not usually a direct result of no-confidence votes, "you can read between the lines," McKinnis says.

But regardless of whether the targets of no-confidence votes stay or leave, the impact of such a message resonates throughout the campus community.

"When you have such a vote, whether or not it is justified, the sense of dysfunction and anger is inescapable," McKinniss says. "These votes can bring a lot of anxiety and discord to campuses and the universities.

Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, notes that the dissonance a no-confidence vote incites may also capture the attention of stakeholders such as alumni and lawmakers.

"The impact depends on the extent to which stakeholders are persuaded by the position of the faculty," Harnisch says. "Faculty need to clearly explain the issue at hand and make convincing arguments why a policy or failure to adhere to process hurts the university, the students or the state" (Schneider, Capital Times, 4/29).

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