Wisconsin Tenure Fight Likely to Spread to Other States

by | July 1, 2015

By Karen Herzog

With more voices joining the highly charged debate over tenure protections in the University of Wisconsin System, it has become increasingly clear that at least in education circles, what's happening here is perceived as a bellwether for public universities across the country.

And as the national fervor rises, two assumptions are meriting a closer look.

The first assumption is that the proposed changes are drawing concern only from educators who are part of an entrenched liberal elite that exasperates the political leadership in Madison.

Last week, two conservative educators _ both University of Wisconsin-Madison professors _ echoed much of what many of their liberal-leaning colleagues have been saying for weeks, albeit with a twist.

Changing tenure rules would put their viewpoints at risk, too, Donald Downs and John Sharpless wrote in a Politico piece.

"As far as college campuses go, we're a rare, endangered species: two long-tenured professors who lean right and libertarian," the political science professor and history professor, respectively, wrote. "But we're increasingly worried that in trying to take up another conservative crusade, our governor, Scott Walker, is going to silence the very voices he claims to support."

Without strong tenure protections, they wrote, "professors like us who fight for free speech and liberty _ values Walker himself espouses _ could be even more at risk of being targeted on college campuses for our beliefs."

Sharpless was a Republican candidate for Congress in a tight race with Democrat Tammy Baldwin in 2000; Downs served on his campaign strategy and finance committees. Both were leaders of the free speech/academic freedom movement at UW-Madison in the 1990s, when conservative and liberal professors with tenure protection stood together against speech codes that were perceived as censorship.

The second assumption in the national debate is that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker _ a certain presidential candidate in 2016 _ is the behind-the-scenes architect of the provisions in the GOP plan put forward by the Legislature's budget-writing Joint Finance Committee on May 29.

It's unclear what role the governor played, if any, in the layoff language that faculty are most upset about. Walker has been noticeably silent on the matter.

Several key Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee have said they want to give the UW System more flexibility to manage personnel _ including layoffs _ given tight economic times and fast-changing educational demands in which some academic programs may lose their appeal and others need to be ramped up.

Asked whether Walker supports the more permissive layoff language for tenured faculty, and whether he played a role in developing that language in the GOP plan, his spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email: "The specific provision you're referencing was introduced by and approved by members of the budget committee and was not proposed by the governor.

Gov. Walker will review the budget in its entirety when it gets to his desk."

Pressed about the governor's position on the layoff language, Patrick would only restate that it "is different from his original budget proposal."

While the intent of tenure is to give scholars freedom to express unpopular opinions and pursue controversial research, critics in the Legislature argue it also has become ironclad job security for some professors to coast through the years to retirement.

The governor's original budget proposal re-imagined the whole structure of the UW System, removing most of the state statute governing the system and creating a more autonomous public authority that would set its own governing policies.

Tenure wasn't explicitly targeted, but the proposal did remove it from the state statute.

That idea fizzled, but in a revised plan now being considered by the GOP, tenure would be removed from state statute and placed under the control of the Board of Regents. Further, layoffs no longer would be a last resort response to a campuswide financial emergency. Tenured faculty instead could be laid off or terminated "when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection." The language is identical to parameters for academic staff layoffs.

The GOP plan does not specify a process for determining when faculty terminations are "deemed necessary" due to a budget or program decision. It also doesn't specify who would be responsible for making such determinations, according to a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which advises the Joint Finance Committee and analyzes proposed legislation.

"If the provisions approved by the Joint Finance Committee were to become law, the Board of Regents would have the authority to adopt policies or promulgate rules regarding when and how faculty terminations would be deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision," the memo says.

A regents-appointed task force that includes faculty members already is drafting a new tenure policy, and UW-Madison is working on one, too. Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who co-sponsored the controversial Joint Finance Committee plan for the UW System, said the layoff provisions have been "very misrepresented" in public discussions.

"The reality is we are not eliminating tenure," she said. "The Board of Regents will establish a tenure policy that will be comparable to other states and other institutions. That would be my expectation."

The senator from River Falls said she understands, however, that "any time you have change, it's difficult and people have fear of what that change is going to entail."

So why did the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee quietly insert layoff provisions for tenured faculty in its biennial budget plan?

"It's important we give our campuses and the UW System the flexibility to make the decisions they face to provide an affordable and competitive education," Harsdorf said. "It is about giving them the tools they need in the marketplace."

That's exactly the kind of language that makes tenured faculty so wary _ and it's also why what's happening in Wisconsin has caught the attention of the rest of the country, and even an international audience. No other state has broad layoff provisions for tenured faculty in statute, according to national higher education associations, which are rallying support behind UW System faculty.

Words like "flexibility" and phrases like "giving them tools" are the same as what Walker used over and over in explaining Act 10, the legislation that eviscerated the power of public employee unions. And in these hyperpolitical times, educators perceive themselves as under siege, particularly by the political right.

Just a couple of weeks ago, during budget deliberations, a last-minute amendment by GOP Senate leaders in North Carolina docked the University of North Carolina School of Law $3 million. Democrats alleged it was political payback for the school's employment of Gene Nichol, a frequent and outspoken critic of Republican legislative leaders.

Earlier this year, the GOP-appointed UNC Board of Governors ordered the closure of the think tank Nichol used to lead, the privately funded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Because he has tenure, Nichol is still employed. But one Democratic legislator, blindsided by the law school budget cut, said, "This feels like the Gene Nichol transfer amendment."

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank is trying to move the discussion to the bigger picture of what is needed to keep a highly regarded public university system strong.

In an op-ed piece published last week by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Blank said two key points in the debate over tenure have been misunderstood.

"First, the University of Wisconsin hasn't abolished tenure," she wrote. The second misunderstanding, she said, is about what tenure is and why it matters.

"Critics dismiss tenure as 'a job for life,'" the chancellor wrote. "Tenure, however, is not about protecting people but rather about protecting open conversation and debate. It is about academic freedom _ the ability to research and teach on all topics, without fear of reprisal."

Wisconsin may be the first state, but it won't be the last to take up this issue, Blank predicted in her op-ed piece:

"I expect this same debate to play out in other states and on other campuses over time."

Blank said in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that her broader concern is "how we can ensure that Wisconsin maintains a world class public research university and the substantial benefits that brings to the state."

A university's reputation rests on the quality of its faculty, "so we're very concerned about anything that makes it harder to recruit and retain top talent," the chancellor said.

(c)2015 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel