In 1904, University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise declared, “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every home in the state.”
The Wisconsin Idea, as this aspiration came to be known, depends on the freedom to “sift and winnow” in search of the truth. The UW Board of Regents famously defended that freedom as essential to higher education when UW Professor Richard Ely faced a political attack for exposing the truth regarding the dangerous working conditions many Wisconsin citizens faced.
Since then, Wisconsin has been a leader in establishing the principles of academic freedom that are necessary to provide our students with a world-class education. The faculty, working through the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), partnered with the Board of Regents and the Legislature to create the institution of faculty tenure.
Rather than a “job for life,” tenure is a right to due process. In short, faculty cannot be summarily dismissed for what they research and teach. Without tenure, faculty cannot challenge conventional wisdom, test controversial ideas, or question university administrators on academic and educational issues without fear of reprisal.
Tenure is indispensable to the freedom to sift and winnow.
Sadly, our current governor and Legislature have relentlessly attacked this legacy. In 2011, they passed Act 10, which stripped faculty of collective bargaining rights and critically weakened those rights for other state workers.
Last summer, the Legislature passed Act 55, described by the governor as “an Act 10 for the UW.” The governor proposed to eliminate the search for truth from the university’s mission. Limitations to tenure and shared governance in Act 55, compounded by enormous budget cuts to UW System, weaken this mission in practice.
After Act 55 became law, the AAUP and AFT-Wisconsin called on the Regents to enact policies that conform with longstanding AAUP policies and standards. In January, the chairman of an ad hoc task force proposed new tenure policies. In February, without any discussion, the Regents’ Education Committee voted to recommend adoption of these policies. The recommended policies will come before the full board for a vote March 10.
In the brief period in which the policies were available for comment, the board’s task force adopted some minimal language from the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. But these draft policies still fall far short of those standards and depart radically from our proud Wisconsin tradition.
First, the AAUP standards hold that a decision to discontinue an academic program should be based essentially on educational considerations, as determined primarily by the faculty. This has worked well for Wisconsin for many years. In contrast, the draft policy before the Regents puts financial considerations first, as determined by campus chancellors. This is a disservice to our students.
Second, the draft policy makes it easier to use program changes to lay off faculty, thereby undermining academic freedom and jeopardizing the quality of students’ education. The draft policy does not require the university to inform faculty members whom it is considering for discontinuance, nor does it invite them to respond.
Neither does the draft policy provide for severance pay when a program is discontinued and no alternative position is available for adversely affected faculty. In these ways, it increases the likelihood faculty layoffs will become an early response to ordinary financial considerations, rather than a last resort for dealing with emergency conditions.
Third, the draft policy replaces a good post-tenure review procedure with a bad one. Since the 1970s, all tenured faculty at all UW campuses have been subject to dismissal for “just cause,” which refers to an inability or unwillingness to fulfill professional and institutional responsibilities. Such firings under the old law had to respect due process rights of faculty through the university’s established grievance procedure.
Twenty-five years ago, the Regents instituted post-tenure review with the idea of encouraging tenured faculty to continue their professional development. Now, the 2016 draft policy introduces a new post-tenure review procedure that can lead to the dismissal of faculty for something less than “just cause,” and without the former protection of due process rights. The new post-tenure review procedure provides faculty with no right to challenge an evaluation and correct the record by appeal to an elected faculty grievance committee.
If promises of academic freedom are to be meaningful, the Regents must remedy these problems at its meeting March 10. We urge the Regents to do so. The achievements of their predecessors hang in the balance.