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The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved new policies for faculty tenure and performance reviews on Thursday over the objections of professors who said the new rules will make it easier for administrators to deal with budget cuts by laying them off.

The nearly unanimous vote to adopt the policies brought to a close a major piece of the lengthy and controversial process of rewriting tenure rules that started last summer, when lawmakers stripped the protections from state law and widely expanded administrators’ power to fire faculty in the 2015-17 budget.

Under the new rules, UW officials will have the authority to discontinue academic programs and lay off tenured faculty for educational or financial reasons — such as if administrators decide other “higher priority” programs need funding. Professors could also face discipline, including firing, if they are found to be falling short of expectations under a new policy for post-tenure review.

With new statewide rules in place, the Regents’ next step is to approve more specific tenure policies for each UW System campus. The board is expected to act in April on a policy from UW-Madison that would give professors stronger protections; System president Ray Cross indicated the Regents could make changes to the proposal.

UW officials insist the new policies will preserve academic freedom and free speech, striking the right balance between protecting tenured faculty and giving chancellors the “flexibility they need to get through tough times,” according to Regent John Behling.

Previously, faculty could only be fired for just cause, or in the event of a campus-wide financial emergency.

Regent President Regina Millner said the policies “will be a critical new tool for our chancellors, to help them better align their resources with the needs of the state without jeopardizing academic freedom or putting us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Professors were far from satisfied with the new rules, however. The Regents voted down several policy amendments, supported by faculty, that would have given professors stronger protections from losing their jobs and more power in determining when layoffs could occur.

UW-Madison professor Dorothy Farrar-Edwards said she was “bitterly disappointed” by the new policy. Julie Schmid, executive director of the Association of American University Professors, said it could set a precedent for weakening tenure protections across the country.

“The Board of Regents today voted to diminish tenure and academic freedom in the UW System, and with it to diminish the reputation of the system, and to undermine the Wisconsin Idea,” Schmid said.

Regent Jose Vasquez, who opposed the policies, questioned why changes to tenure — which have drawn national attention to Wisconsin, and according to UW-Madison officials made it harder for the campus to recruit and retain top faculty — were necessary in the first place.

“I’ve never been convinced that we had a broken system,” Vasquez said.

The financial challenges on UW campuses are the result of large state budget cuts to higher education funding, Vasquez said, and weakening tenure rules and laying off faculty will not solve the system’s problems.

“It wasn’t tenure that caused the fiscal crisis,” Vasquez said. “The fiscal crisis that we have has been imposed on us.”

Different philosophies

on display

Discussion of the new policies at times laid bare major differences in how the Regents — many of whom are appointees of Republican Gov. Scott Walker — believe the UW System should be managed.

Some saw decisions to close programs and dismiss faculty as analogous to companies in the private sector deciding to shift investment from one less-profitable product to another that is selling well.

“The needs of Wisconsin change,” Regent Jose Delgado said. “We need resources in order to be able to invest in the needs.”

After state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who is also a Regent, proposed creating a faculty committee that would weigh in on program closures, other Regents said no business would go through such a lengthy process.

“Welcome to the 21st century,” said Regent Margaret Farrow.

Vasquez and others pushed back against the idea of managing the UW System like a business, saying the job of a university “is different from making widgets.”

Many of the professors at the meeting agreed, saying UW institutions do more than simply grant degrees and produce graduates.

“We are not running cash registers and (students) are not buying Pop Tarts,” UW-Eau Claire professor Geoffrey Peterson said. “What we do is far more complicated than that.”

Campus policies

next step

Cross said the new policies were written broadly, to allow for each of the system’s campuses to write rules that are tailored to their institution’s needs.

“What works precisely at Madison will be different than what works precisely at Superior,” Cross said.

But campus policies will still have to be in line with the statewide rules passed Thursday, Cross said. The policy approved by faculty at UW-Madison, which offers stronger protections to professors, will likely face some “critical” changes to keep it compatible with the statewide rules, he said, such as noting more clearly that the campus’ chancellor has the final authority to decide on layoffs.

Noel Radomski, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said UW-Madison’s policy could serve as a framework for rules at other campuses.

But, he noted, having each campus write tenure policies could lead to a future in which the rules vary by campus, and professors at UW-Madison enjoy greater protection than those at other schools.

Layoffs could come at struggling campuses

It remains to be seen whether and how UW System chancellors will use the authority the new policies gave them.

Radomski said it’s likely that chancellors at cash-strapped UW campuses — particularly those at regional campuses where declining enrollment has compounded the effect of state budget cuts — could look to close departments and dismiss faculty members.

“The new uncertainty, and the new concern, is going to be: Are the enrollment and the fiscal problems going to trigger program discontinuation, and therefore trigger faculty layoffs?” Radomski said.

If chancellors make layoffs under the policy, Schmid said, the AAUP could investigate and censure their campus.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.