Regents Approve A New Tenure Policy For The University of Wisconsin System

Mar 11, 2016

Wisconsin's public university system will now operate under a new tenure policy. 

The University of Wisconsin system Board of Regents approved changes to tenure protections at its meeting Thursday morning. The overhauled policy will replace the state tenure law that Republican leaders scrapped in the most recent budget.

Higher education interests around the country have been watching the decision, wondering how it will impact the quality of higher education in Wisconsin's highly-regarded system.

As the Regents approached a vote, a good part of the discussion focused on striking a balance between faculty concerns and financial considerations.

Regent John Behling headed the task force that drafted tenure changes over the past eight months. He said in making decisions, campus chancellors need to be able to think economically.

“Unfortunately in today’s economy, economics travel hand in hand,” Behling said. “We have to be able to have that discussion.”

Tenure protections in Wisconsin’s public university system had been widely considered among the strongest in the country.

The regents’ new policy lengthens the list of reasons universities could dismiss tenured faculty. Those reasons include failing to meet standards under a new five-year review process, or if a campus discontinues an academic program.

These changes gives some faculty cause for concern.

Sara Goldrick-Rab has been a researcher at UW-Madison for eleven years. She announced this week that she’ll head to Temple University in Philadelphia, in July. Goldrick-Rab says she’s decided to leave UW because of looming changes to tenure.

“The reason that I went through what I went through to get a PhD and then to earn tenure, was to in fact have that job security. It’s what I came for, it’s what was promised to me,” Goldrick-Rab explains. “When the conditions of my employment shifted overnight, I decided to leave.”

“The climate, I think it’s poisonous for the kind of work that I do,” she adds.

This exodus is what other UW faculty say they fear.

Professor Dave Vanness predicts it will be difficult for schools to attract talented instructors, when other university systems have stronger tenure protections.

“It sounds sappy, but we’re in this to make the world a better place,” Vanness says. “It’s hard. It’s just sad to see that this is the university system that we seem to be looking forward to having in the future.”

Members of the task force that drafted the new policy say they looked at procedures from several other university systems to ensure UW schools remain competitive. Regent Mark Tyler echoed that sentiment at Thursday's meeting.

“We need great faculty and staff, or we're in trouble,” Tyler said. “Balancing this flexibility against how do we recruit and retain the best that we possibly can? That's a huge issue for us.”

Regent and State Superintendent Tony Evers tweeted his thoughts about the balancing act.

In the end, regents decided they had to give equal weight to faculty and finance, especially in a time of deep state budget cuts to the entire UW system.

“We cannot have quality, serve our students, have quality faculty if we do not have a sound financial system,” explained Regent president Regina Millner.

Individual campuses will be in charge of crafting their own faculty protection processes. Here's how Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Karen Herzog explains the process:

The new policy will broadly apply to all campuses, but some of the language is intentionally permissive to allow each campus to develop its own procedures to implement it, according to UW System President Ray Cross. Any campus-specific differences must be consistent with the umbrella policy, though, and be approved by the regents, he said. 

The regents are expected to hear first from UW-Madison in April.