When University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty take up a “no-confidence” resolution Monday aimed at the system Board of Regents and president Ray Cross, they will be part of a growing trend, says one university governance researcher.
As universities face tighter budgets, greater demands for accountability and pressure to raise money privately, faculty are really feeling the pressure, said Sean McKinniss, who keeps a database of no-confidence votes at U.S. universities.
An emerging style of governance also puts faculty at odds with leaders at many institutions, McKinniss said.
“There is a trend in higher-education management for a more corporate type of leadership. That style can rub faculty the wrong way,” he said.
McKinniss’ database lists 150 no-confidence initiatives since 1989 with counts of 14 in 2015, 21 in 2014, 10 in 2013 and seven in 2012.
The UW-Madison Faculty Senate are scheduled to consider a no-confidence resolution drafted by sociology professor Chad Goldberg at their regular meeting Monday. A number of amendments to the resolution are expected and it is not clear what — if anything — will go to the 220 members of the senate for a vote.
The resolution focuses on the process of revising tenure policy for the UW-Madison campus — brought to the Board of Regents in April — but the influence of larger issues like the controversial changes to the system-wide tenure policy and deep budget cuts under Gov. Scott Walker also are apparent.
The UW-Madison tenure policy was changed by UW System general counsel and the Board of Regents to make it easier to lay off tenured faculty instead of being returned to the UW-Madison Faculty Senate for modification, the resolution says.
That violates the university’s strong tradition of faculty governance that has fostered loyalty, commitment and creativity in research and teaching, the resolution states.
“The erosion of that tradition by the Board of Regents' unprecedented and unwarranted interference with our local governance procedures does grievous damage to our university,” it states.
”The failure of the UW System President and the Board of Regents adequately to protect academic due process and shared governance has damaged the reputation of UW-Madison,” it goes on to say.
The pending vote has drawn opposition from Republican legislative leaders, one of whom called it a “hissy fit” over minor changes.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank advised faculty not to support the measure in a public statement made on her blog, saying that it could not bring any positive outcome.
“Such a vote would put the UW-Madison faculty in opposition to our governing board, with which we work closely and must have a positive relationship,” Blank said in the post.
Monday will not be the first time UW officials are targeted by a no confidence vote, according to reaserch by Noel Radomski, director of UW-Madison's WISCAPE.
In 1996, the faculty governance group at UW-Stout voted no confidence in chancellor Charles Sorenson over a proposed charter school experiment. And in 1985, a multi-campus faculty governance group gave a vote of no confidence to regent president Ben Lawton over faculty pay issues.
McKinniss said that in the cases he has studied, about half of presidents who receive a no confidence vote leave within a year.
Rarely are their departures explicitly linked to the no-confidence vote, “but you can read between the lines,” he said.
Others continue in their jobs for years. For instance, Sorenson continued at UW-Stout until his retirement in 2014 as the system’s long-serving chancellor.
Whether their targets leave or not, no confidence votes greatly impact institutions where they occur, McKinniss said. “When you have such a vote, whether or not it is justified, the sense of dysfunction and anger is inescapable. These votes can bring a lot of anxiety and discord to campuses and the universities,” he said.
Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said a no confidence vote can bring the issues causing discord within an institution to the attention of the stakeholders — students, alumni, lawmakers and the general public.
“The impact depends on the extent to which stakeholders are persuaded by the position of the faculty,” Harnisch said. “Faculty need to clearly explain the issue at hand and make convincing arguments why a policy or failure to adhere to process hurts the university, the students or the state.”