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MILWAUKEE — Incurring the wrath of the professoriate, Wisconsin legislators stuck to their guns last summer and removed tenure guarantees from state statute.

They essentially bundled up the issue and rolled it down State Street to the UW Board of Regents, which is scheduled to adopt a new tenure policy on March 10.

The Regents are a group of unpaid citizens doing an often thankless job, and they probably don’t relish being in the line of attack. Luckily, they have a clear, written set of “Expectations of Board Members” to guide them. Here are just a few of those expectations:

Regents are expected to represent “the public interest in general and not the interest of any particular constituency.”

We already know the Regents are considering the interests of the professors who served on a Tenure Policy Task Force made up almost entirely of UW System employees. The recommendations of the task force already have been adopted by a Regents’ committee and are now before the full board. It’s less clear whether they’re considering the general public, which includes students, taxpayers, parents and employers.

Regents are expected to engage in “strategic planning to address future needs.”

The Tenure Policy Task Force is recommending the Regents allow layoffs of tenured faculty only in the case of financial emergency or program discontinuation.

Universities are changing dramatically in the face of distance-learning technologies, an evolving economy and the rapidly changing needs of students and employers. Programs are being redirected or modified rather than discontinued.

And if schools are to become more nimble as they plan for the future, chancellors need the ability to lay off tenured faculty when programs are shrinking — even if they are not being eliminated outright, according to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report, “The Trouble with Tenure: How the Regents can make professors accountable to taxpayers and students.”

Regents are expected to “be well-informed.”

Good information on tenure can be hard to find. But new research makes clear that tenure doesn’t always work well.

A WPRI-sponsored survey of 459 UW System instructional staff (those who work alongside tenured professors but aren’t eligible for tenure) found that most believe tenure is a good indication of the quality of research. But only about 30 percent feel it is a good indication of the quality of instruction or of the impact on the community, business or economy.

That’s why the Regents should direct campuses to use definitions of “public service” that include measurable contributions to business, the community and the economy when granting or denying tenure.

It’s also why the Regents should direct campuses to clearly articulate why each department benefits — or doesn’t — from having tenured employees, rather than instructional staff. Roughly a third to half of full-time equivalent positions involving teaching are held by instructional staff, depending on the campus.

Unfortunately, there is much that isn’t as clear. There is little or no data on how often tenure-track candidates decide to leave rather than apply, how often they are denied or how often decisions are overruled by chancellors. Similarly, there is no data on whether faculty are ever terminated as a result of post-tenure reviews or how many might be underperforming. No one can be well-informed unless the Regents mandate data-driven reports from each campus on an annual basis.

Regents are expected to establish and maintain “a strong system of accountability to the public for performance results.”

The Regents must do more than simply adopt the recommendations of their task force if they are to convince taxpayers, students, parents and legislators that all professors are performing as they’re supposed to. The Regents should direct campuses to adopt a stronger post-tenure review process with clear and defined expectations.

It’s clear professors favor the status quo, but the rest of us — taxpayers, students, the business community and legislators — need a better way to know if the campuses and professors are fulfilling their end of the bargain.

Support will depend on whether the Regents meet what they say are their own expectations.

Nichols is president of the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in Milwaukee: wpri.org.

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