Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Post-tenure review: BOR-ed to death

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Reader, I was there: at yesterday’s meeting of the Education Committee of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, held here at UWM, where a resolution on tenure was taken up; where faculty from UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee addressed the Regents about the importance of tenure and questioned the motivation for altering its legal status and definition; and where a symbolic but nonetheless significant amendment asking the Legislature to remove nonfiscal items from section 39 of JFC’s omnibus motion #521 of last Friday was snuffed out, on a party-line vote, in a bit of well-orchestrated parliamentary sabotage.

The existing statutory protections for tenured and tenure-track faculty in the UW System consist of two parts, one limiting the grounds for “dismissal” and the other providing an override permitting “termination”. Chapter 36.13 says that faculty “may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing”; but Chapter 36.21 adds that, notwithstanding those and related provisions, “the board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when a financial emergency exists.” In other words, a faculty member can be fired and their position refilled only if there is “just cause” for doing so; but if a financial emergency forces the elimination of the position altogether, a faculty member can be fired absent any independent just cause. The various penalties and other difficulties attendant upon declaring a financial emergency are severe, and the existing protections for faculty are correspondingly quite strong.

The current talking point among Republican legislators and many Regents is that tenure is being moved from statute into Board policy. Quite apart from the question of why one would do this in the absence of a desire to weaken tenure protections (the oft-repeated point that Wisconsin is the only state where tenure resides in statute is just an observation, not an argument), this way of framing the matter obscures what is actually happening. The dismissal provisions of 36.13 are being deleted from statute and copied into Board policy; but the termination override language of 36.21 is being drastically expanded in statute by JFC in section 39 of the omnibus motion. The Education Committee yesterday, and the full Board today, voted not to exhort the Legislature to drop the expanded termination language from statute. If that language becomes law, the restraints previously imposed by the financial emergency condition will be completely removed, and essentially any program change, reorganization, or downsizing initiative can be used as a reason (or a pretext) for terminating faculty.

Animus towards tenure is of course not only a Republican trait: some of the most zealous “school reformers” of recent years are Democrats who have taken aim at tenure for K-12 teachers and principals. More generally, the project of putting private interests in the way of massive public cash flows is a fully bipartisan one.

But the present attack on faculty tenure in the UW System is also part of a particularly Republican project. Specifically, UW faculty tenure is an obstacle to the broader project of dismantling the state. With state appropriations to the UW System having been continually cut (by both Democratic and Republican administrations) over the past fifteen years, we are now at the point where cutting further would require firing faculty. The law is being changed accordingly. As we now know, this is being done with the tacit approval of the Board of Regents, who will oversee the downsizing necessitated by this year’s cuts and those that will surely follow in the future.

Meanwhile, the Regents also moved at this week’s meeting to dramatically expand their power relative to faculty in chancellor searches, in line with the newly downgraded role of faculty in university governance spelled out in the JFC omnibus motion.

There is a slim hope that tenure in the UW System might be saved, but it will require the removal of the section 39 termination language from the budget. The Board of Regents will not advocate for its removal; perhaps individual Regents might. It is incumbent upon faculty to do what little is in their power to generate goodwill with legislators, particularly with those few Republican state senators who might swing the budget vote. One specific action that can be taken is for faculty senates across the UW System to pass resolutions in support of a future cap on tuition increases for resident undergraduates. This might rankle administrators, who have argued vehemently against any such cap, but it would be a good thing for students, and faculty should support it independently of present concerns over tenure. It also happens to be a major concern of State Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).

In all likelihood, we are headed for the elimination of tenure in the UW System in all but name, and its messy fallout: certainly lawsuits, probably censure by professional organizations, possibly even loss of accreditation and access to federal student aid. Some faculty will leave for other universities; many more won’t be able to, for a variety of reasons. But all UW System faculty will have one eye on the door from here on out.

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