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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