Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


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UW tenure: as little as possible

Tenure weakened in Wisconsin.”  So says the national AAUP in response to the UW System’s now-official policies on tenure, faculty layoff, and post-tenure review, which were adopted by the Board of Regents this past Thursday, unaltered in their essentials from the problematic drafts issued by the Tenure Policy Task Force in January.  At the Regents meeting there was much talk of difficult decisions and harsh new realities.  The first casualty of the new policies, it seems, is the pretense that they might be consistent with nationally recognized standards.

The formal decline of tenure in Wisconsin has coincided with renewed media interest in faculty pay.  System President Ray Cross said in an interview earlier last week that, while changes to tenure “are causes to make faculty nervous…the real reason I think faculty are being lured away is compensation packages.”  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on faculty retention efforts at UW-Madison, detailing the tens of thousands of dollars in raises and additional research funds that a handful of faculty have negotiated in the face of job offers from elsewhere.  The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the end of tenure will bring a financial windfall for UW professors near and far.

Indeed, the elephant in the room last Thursday was money, particularly the Regents’ apparent unwillingness or inability to advocate for more of it in the face of legislative slashing and burning.  The overarching goal of the new policies, we were repeatedly told, is to give chancellors flexibility.  Flexibility, of course, is code for a host of austerity measures predicated on the consolidation of power in administrative hands.  It can also be read here as a byword for Regental buck-passing: far from standing up to legislators, the Regents have turned around and told chancellors to stand up to faculty, all while adopting policies that create a glide path for further cuts.  The time to draw a line in the sand was yesterday; instead, our new flexibility-enhanced chancellors will be able to use program prioritization and other means to enact a kind of financial emergency in slow motion.

Conspicuously absent from Thursday’s discussion was any suggestion from the new policies’ proponents that the changes will help the UW System regain the confidence of legislators.  Rather, endless austerity was presented as a given, with faculty chided for their lack of business sense.  The obvious cynicism of this line of attack didn’t prevent some faculty from rising to the bait, telling reporters of their long experience issuing layoff notices to academic staff.  The divide-and-conquer reflex was evinced by UW-Madison’s chancellor, as well.  In her prepared remarks and subsequent blog post, she spoke of the “different needs” of the various UW System campuses, a framing that meshes entirely too well with that of the right-wing Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which in a recent manifesto questioned whether tenure is needed at every UW campus.

Tenure has been modified, shared governance curtailed.  Local media has turned its normalizing gaze to outliers at the very top of the faculty pay spectrum.  The flagship’s chancellor appears poised to throw the rest of the System under the bus.  Campuses are struggling to absorb the $250 million in cuts handed down in the current cycle.  And with negotiations over the next biennial budget less than a year away, the Board of Regents has adopted policies that will make it politically easier for legislators to cut again.

Welcome to the 21st century, indeed.

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UW tenure: a challenger appears

With the UW System Board of Regents set to adopt new tenure policies next week, Wisconsin’s right-wing policy apparatus has sprung into action.  On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) released a report questioning the value of tenure and urging the Regents to adopt policies allowing them to terminate tenured faculty for the full range of reasons delineated in Act 55: program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, and redirection.  The issue at the heart of the Tenure Policy Task Force’s work since last summer—namely, whether it is possible for the Board of Regents to adopt policies that are more stringent than those now enumerated in statute, and thereby to salvage something resembling tenure in Wisconsin—has thus been brought once again to the fore.

To repeat what has been said many times: allowing institutions to terminate tenured faculty for reasons of program curtailment, modification, and redirection—i.e., changes short of full discontinuance—is totally incompatible with academic freedom.  It is an open invitation to administrative abuse and political intrusion into the university.  Tenure is the guarantor of academic freedom.  The Regents have claimed since the summer that tenure will be safe in the UW System, and this claim has always rested on the proposition that the Regents will able to limit the range of circumstances in which tenured faculty can be fired, i.e. that the offending statutory language of Act 55 is “merely permissive.”

The Regents have thus implicitly acknowledged that an institution where tenured faculty can be fired for reasons of program curtailment, modification, or redirection is an institution that does not have tenure in any meaningful sense.  But this is what WPRI is now expressly advocating.

The WPRI report also offers some hints as to what future efforts to weaken tenure in the UW System will look like.  In particular, it suggests a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, questioning whether tenure is necessary in the UW Colleges and Extension, or at the four-year non-doctoral campuses.  UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee faculty thus must be prepared to stand up for tenure everywhere in the UW System.

The publication of the WPRI report underscores the importance of ensuring that the policies adopted by the Regents next week are as strong as possible.  To that end, the Faculty Representatives to the Board of Regents and the faculty members of the Tenure Policy Task Force have unanimously endorsed a set of recommended changes to the draft policies approved by the Education Committee last month.  Those recommendations address some of the well-documented deficiencies in the draft policies, which were written with minimal faculty input, despite the best efforts of the task force members.

WPRI and its backers want to kill tenure in the UW System.  Faculty across the System are, with remarkable unanimity, asking for modest changes to the draft policies that no Regent who actually cared about tenure and academic freedom could reasonably oppose.

Thursday should be interesting.

[Update, 3/5/16: Chuck Rybak offers an assessment of the WPRI report here.]