University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said her biggest worry amid debate over a proposed change for faculty tenure is a raid of some of the school's brightest minds.
"There are a lot of phone calls that are coming into my faculty — people who have been reading the national press," Blank said in an interview on "UpFront with Mike Gousha." "I've had several faculty reporting that they've gotten two or three phone calls over this last weekend from other universities, saying, 'You want us to pursue an offer for you?'
"We could lose our best assets within the next six months. That's where these sorts of upsets just don't accomplish anything. It puts the university at real risk, and a risk that this state shouldn't want its flagship university to be at."
The Republican-controlled Legislature's Joint Finance Committee approved in a party-line vote taking tenure protections out of the state statutes, shifting responsibility to the Board of Regents. The change would allow tenured faculty members to be removed from their position "when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection."
Blank said she would push for changes to that language, which she said is out of sorts with the standard tenure language at peer institutions.
But any change seems unlikely. Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in an interview with Gousha that he doesn't see any reversal coming from Republican legislators, who have considered changes to tenure for a couple of years.
"(Assembly) Speaker (Robin) Vos and I talked about it and said, if we can kick this to the Regents and allow the Regents to handle this, let's get this out of statute," Fitzgerald said. "The idea that somebody should be completely protected from any type of criticism when they make public comments, or even the way they handle themselves on campus, is just not sitting well with many of us. So it's not only in Wisconsin, I think it's a national discussion that's been going on about tenure."
If the changes go forward, Blank said she and UW System administrators will need to write policies that define when the Regents can use the authority to fire tenured faculty.
Faculty members have said they are wary of trusting the Regents, however.
Blank said the Regents' actions will have to be what convinces faculty that they will do the right things.
"The Regents voted unanimously to put into Regent policy the wording that was removed from state statute," Blank said. "So I think they really do understand the importance of tenure and tenure protection."
In addition to the potential for having faculty poached by other universities, UW-Madison has lost out on a number of professors that it had been recruiting, Blank said. Among the reasons given, she said, was that there was too much risk at Wisconsin compared to other schools.
"That's a dangerous place to be for an institution whose entire reputation rests upon the quality of our faculty," Blank said.
The series of issues the UW System has faced in the budget process — first changes proposed to the Wisconsin Idea, then a $300 million budget cut later reduced to $250 million and finally the tenure changes — has justifiably led to some emotion on campus, Blank said.
"It's been a very long winter and spring," she said. "You get changes in the mission statement. You have a long budget debate. You then get dumped with some of these tenure changes. At some point, it's hard not to feel anger and I really appreciate the concern that my faculty have."