Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


UW tenure: endgame

Two weeks ago today, the Education Committee of the UW System Board of Regents unanimously approved the new policies on tenure, faculty layoff, and post-tenure review developed by the Tenure Policy Task Force, forwarding them to the full Board for approval at its March 10 meeting. Hank Reichman at the Academe Blog has a writeup of the day’s proceedings. The policies were approved essentially unmodified: there was a minor change in the definition of the remediation time-frame in the post-tenure review policy. The faculty layoff policy was approved as drafted, with no discussion, despite the fact that the Education Committee had convened an extraordinary session with all Regents present for the express purpose of discussing the policies. Okay, then.

With no substantive changes to the earlier drafts, the policies’ many problems remain. Several Regents have tacitly acknowledged the existence of those problems by impugning the character of the policies’ critics rather than defending the policies solely on the merits. Regent President Regina Millner said that some faculty leaders would have complained about the policies “no matter what we wrote.” System President Ray Cross said, “It’s frustrating to me that the emotional reaction on the part of some folks failed to realize the substance of tenure was simply moved from statute to board policy.” Such emotional reactions apparently include that of the national AAUP, which wrote the following in a joint statement with AFT-Wisconsin: “We remain concerned, however, that some of the provisions in the draft regent policy documents fall far short of [AAUP] standards.”

The claim that tenure has simply moved to board policy is belied by Cross’s comment, two sentences later, that the new policy “also had to honor language in new legislation”. Chuck Rybak lays bare the illogic in the space of a tweet (journalists, take note!):

Cross appears to be referring here to new legislation around post-tenure review, describing it as “new legislation concerned about accountability with reasonable timelines and processes to deal with underperforming faculty, and to reward faculty who exceed expectations.” Likewise, Regent Gerald Whitburn, the chair of the Education Committee, said of the UW System’s existing post-tenure review policy (adopted in 1992) that “It did not facilitate accountability and result in an even playing field across our institutions. Frankly, I think that’s why the Legislature did what they did.”

The thing to know about this, though, is that on post-tenure review, the Legislature did nothing. The Legislature made massive, largely destructive changes to the UW System in Act 55 (the 2015–17 biennial budget), but nowhere in Act 55 did they require the Board of Regents to make changes to its post-tenure review policy. It’s entirely plausible that individual legislators have told the Regents that they would like to see such changes, but there is no legislation to this effect. (Again, journalists, hello?)

A major remaining concern about the faculty layoff policy is the question of whether faculty may be laid off or terminated in program changes short of discontinuation. Chapter 36, as amended by Act 55, clearly says yes. The Regent policy says that layoff and termination can happen in cases of program discontinuance, but is silent on curtailment, modification, and redirection. After the policies were approved by the Education Committee two weeks ago, both UW System counsel Tom Stafford and Regent John Behling, who chaired the task force, insisted that the Board would not be permitted to lay off or terminate faculty in program changes short of discontinuation:

“Stafford told reporters Friday that if the proposed policies are adopted, regents would need to vote to change the policy before exercising their statutory power to lay off faculty for program changes short of discontinuation.”

“The new policy allows for faculty to be laid off only if their program is discontinued, however, and ‘clearly restricts’ UW officials from using the other justifications lawmakers gave them, said Regent John Behling, who led the task force that wrote the policy.”

If this is indeed the intended interpretation of the policy, then surely the Regents wouldn’t object to amending the policy to include a positive assertion to that effect? Perhaps something like “Notwithstanding the powers granted to the Board by Wis. Stat. s. 36.22 (2)(a), no faculty member shall be laid off or terminated as a result of a budget or program decision requiring program curtailment, modification, or redirection, unless that decision requires program discontinuance.” Such a change would be consistent with statute, would help build confidence with faculty, and, per the Regents’ own characterization, would be semantically innocent.

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Modify and redirect

This week the UW System Board of Regents will take up the draft policies on faculty layoff and post-tenure review developed by the Tenure Policy Task Force, the latest versions of which were circulated on January 22.  The policies go before the Education Committee not at its regular Thursday meeting, but at an extraordinary session on Friday, with all Regents in attendance.  The policies will go before the full Board for approval at the Regents’ March meeting.

The draft policies are substantially similar to the versions released in December before the final meeting of the task force, and many of the criticisms of the December drafts apply to the current drafts, as well.  The “educational considerations” that are to serve as the fundamental criteria for program discontinuance decisions are still defined in such a way as to be inseparable from financial considerations.  Negative post-tenure review decisions are still not subject to institutional grievance procedures, a gross violation of due process; failure to complete a remediation plan can lead to dismissal for cause, in a cavalier expansion of the definition of just cause for dismissal.  And the preamble to the faculty layoff policy still purports to quote AAUP’s language on using layoff as a last resort, when in fact it says only that all feasible alternatives must be “considered” (AAUP says “pursued“).

One improvement from the December drafts concerns the institution’s responsibility to faculty who are laid off.  Both the financial emergency section and the program discontinuance section now contain the following language: “As provided in Wis. Stat. s. 36.22 (12), institutions shall devote their best efforts to securing alternative appointments for faculty laid off under this section, and also shall provide financial assistance for readaptation of faculty laid off under this section where readaptation is feasible.”  This is an aesthetic improvement to the policy, not a substantive one, since the protections enumerated here reside in statute (36.22 was created as part of 2015 Act 55, the biennial budget bill), but it is nonetheless welcome.  Wisconsin’s newly amended statute appears to be consistent with the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on this point. [Update: Dave Vanness points out that AAUP RIR calls for a year’s severance pay for faculty for whom a suitable alternative position cannot be found, whereas 36.22 and the Board’s draft policy do not.]

What remains conspicuously absent from the draft policy on faculty layoff is any specific forswearing of the Board’s statutorily granted powers to lay off or terminate faculty in cases of program curtailment, modification, or redirection, i.e. program changes short of outright elimination or closure.  The ability to make such micro-changes to programs invites all kinds of administrative abuse and is a clear threat to academic freedom.

Let’s go through this piece by piece.  We begin with Wisconsin statute:

  • Wis. Stat. s. 36.22 (2)(a): “The board may, under this section and s. 36.21, with appropriate notice, lay off or terminate any faculty member when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring a program change.”
  • Wis. Stat. s. 36.22 (1)(b): “‘Program change’ means program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.”

So, state law now says that tenured faculty can be laid off for essentially any reason whatsoever.  The UW System has a thing called tenure, but it bears no resemblance to tenure as defined by the AAUP, every normal university in America, and pre-2015 Wisconsin.  This was the starting point for the Tenure Policy Task Force’s work; it’s old news by now.

Now to the draft policy language:

  • Faculty layoff draft policy (preamble): “As provided in Wis. Stat. s. 36.21 and Wis. Stat. s. 36.22, and Chapter UWS 5 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System (Board) has authority, with appropriate notice, to terminate through layoff a faculty appointment when necessary in the event of a financial emergency, or a program decision resulting in program discontinuance.”

True, but incomplete.  Continuing on:

  • “The Board is permitted by Wis. Stat. s. 36.21 to adopt procedures relating to faculty layoff. Consistent with Chapter UWS 5 and Wis. Stat. s. 36.22, this Board policy sets forth those procedures. Faculty layoffs at University of Wisconsin System institutions may be undertaken only in accordance with this policy, Chapter UWS 5, Wis. Stat. s. 36.21, and Wis. Stat. s. 36.22.”

It’s hard to see how this rules out the possibility of layoff for the several reasons enumerated in 36.22 (2)(a).  Remaining silent on the matter of curtailment, modification, and redirection doesn’t mean that layoffs for those reasons are barred, or even that they are against Board policy…since the draft policy explicitly says that faculty layoff can occur in accordance with 36.22!  This isn’t exclusion by omission; it’s a glaring lacuna in Board policy.

It would be easy for the Board to adopt specific language addressing these points, e.g. by including a clause that says, “Notwithstanding the powers granted to the Board by Wis. Stat. s. 36.22 (2)(a), no faculty member shall be laid off or terminated as a result of a budget or program decision requiring program curtailment, modification, or redirection, unless that decision requires program discontinuance.” Such a clause wouldn’t contradict statute: negated “shall” is consistent with positive “may” (different ordering sources, if you want to get technical about it).  This is where the “merely permissive” rubber of the 36.22 language could have hit the Board policy road, as Ray Cross and Becky Blank repeatedly insisted it would.  Instead, we have a draft policy that does nothing to address the problem at the root of the Wisconsin tenure crisis, and that, if approved in this form, will consummate the elimination of tenure in the UW System in all but name.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the “discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection” language wasn’t plucked from thin air: it’s been part of the Wisconsin administrative code governing academic staff in the UW System for years.  Per UWS 12, academic staff with indefinite appointments—the analogue of tenure—are subject to layoff in all of the above scenarios.  36.22, in combination with the Regents’ selectively silent draft policy, puts tenured faculty on an equally bad footing.  Academic staff in the UW System have, and faculty soon will have, wholly inadequate guarantees of academic freedom.  It’s time to fix this for everyone.