Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

UW tenure: a challenger appears

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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.]

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