Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

UW tenure: the end


So: no, there will not be real tenure in the University of Wisconsin System.  That much has been more or less clear since May 29, when the Joint Finance Committee dropped its UW omnibus motion bomb.  It became even clearer when the motion’s broad provisions for terminating tenured faculty became law, essentially unaltered, with the signing of the biennial budget in mid-July.  And it walked up and punched any remaining doubters in the nose yesterday, at a meeting of the UW System Tenure Policy Task Force in Madison.

The news of the day was that UW-Madison will not be allowed to write its own tenure policy, but instead will be bound within the parameters of a system-wide policy developed by the Board of Regents.  Why would anyone have thought otherwise?  Perhaps because UW-Madison’s chancellor spent the summer explicitly and repeatedly insisting that Madison would be able to write its own policy, as part of its newfound autonomy in personnel matters (Wis. Stat. 36.115).  The UW-Madison University Committee did as much, drafting language that attempted (however hopefully) to assert strong, AAUP-level tenure protections while staying within the confines of the new statutory language of Act 55.  Many seem to have believed that a strong Madison tenure policy could serve as a model for the entire System; but in any case Madison would be okay.  The reality check came on Tuesday in the form of a memo from Ray Cross, and yesterday’s task force discussion made clear that no amount of campus-level rule-making will trump the policy to be adopted by the Regents.

We learned a bit more yesterday about what that Regents policy will look like.  In particular, we learned that the Regents will mandate a post-tenure review process one of whose possible outcomes is termination of a tenured appointment.  The Regents’ post-tenure review proposal has been drafted and presented in much the same way as the Legislature’s program modification language in May: a brief nod at a good thing (merit pay, a tenured appointment) followed by lengthy, point-by-point detail on how to fire people.  System lawyers asserted that termination of an “underperforming” faculty member through the post-tenure review process will fall under dismissal for cause (the AAUP, to put it mildly, does not share this view).  Never mind that there are no agreed-upon performance parameters, and that any attempt to codify such parameters will (i) be a bureaucratic nightmare and (ii) introduce perverse incentives for tenured faculty, almost certainly to the detriment of students.  The Regents insist, plausibly, that this is what legislators have demanded.  But the Regents have yet to convince anyone that those legislators can actually be appeased.

Meanwhile, we are further and further from anything even remotely resembling a tenure policy that meets AAUP standards.  The notion that it was possible to create such a thing without contravening post-Act 55 statute was always misguided at best and deceitful at worst, no matter how insistently Cross, Blank, et al. pointed to the auxiliary “may”.  Commendable as the Madison and Milwaukee UCs’ efforts to create strong policy language have been, we were only ever going to get AAUP-standard tenure back by getting the Regents to put pressure on legislators, i.e., by effecting a complete reversal of the political dynamics of the UW System.  In September, before the last meeting of the Tenure Policy Task Force, the executive committees of the UW-Milwaukee, UW-Whitewater, and UW-Madison chapters of the AAUP released a joint statement outlining some guiding principles and specific recommendations that the Tenure Policy Task Force could make along those lines (disclosure: I am vice president of the UWM chapter).

The Regents, it seems, were unmoved.  Even so, the statement remains a useful yardstick for determining just how far from AAUP compliance the forthcoming system-wide Regents tenure policy will be.