In the Spring 2016 issue of the WMU-AAUP Advocate newsletter, we reported on developments in Wisconsin regarding actions taken by the state legislature and Gov. Scott Walker to cut public higher education funding in that state by $250 million and significantly weaken tenure, due process, and shared governance rights for faculty at public universities in the state. (“Walker erodes college professor tenure,” Politico, July 12, 2015.)
We also reported that a task force had been appointed to write new policy language for tenure in the University of Wisconsin System and that the draft policy produced by the task force in December 2015 had raised serious questions and concerns for professors in Wisconsin.
(Click here to read the Advocate article.)
In early February, the language went before a committee of the UWS Board of Regents, whose members endorsed it without discussion and sent it on to the full board for review. On March 10, 2016, the board voted to approve statewide rules that will significantly weaken tenure and due process protections for faculty at all UW campuses.
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported on March 11:
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.
(“Regents approve new policies for UW tenure over professors’ objections,” Wisconsin State Journal, March 11, 2016.)
According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, “regents cited the need, in an era of tight budgets, for ‘flexibility’ to close programs — and eliminate faculty jobs in the process.” Several amendments to the new policy language were proposed by faculty and by dissenting members of the board that would have strengthened tenure and due-process protections. Two of the amendments were voted down by the board 11-5. Another failed in an 8-8 deadlock. (“‘Fake’ Tenure?” Inside Higher Ed, March 11, 2016.)
As the Wisconsin State Journal reports,
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.
One member of the UWS Board of Regents, José Vásquez, spoke out against the new policies at the meeting last Thursday where the new language was ultimately approved. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Mr. Vásquez “drew applause from the audience at the board meeting by protesting that the financial pressures on the system were not its own doing but the result of a lack of adequate financial support from the state”:
“It was not tenure that caused the fiscal crisis. It was not faculty who were entrenched and did not want to terminate programs,” Mr. Vásquez said. “The fiscal crisis that we have has been imposed on us.”
(“Wisconsin Regents Approve New Layoff and Tenure Policies Over Faculty Objections,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 10, 2016.)
Julie Schmid, executive director of the national AAUP, told the Wisconsin State Journal that the new rules “could set a precedent for weakening tenure protections across the country.” According to Dr. Schmid,
“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.”
The national AAUP issued a statement on March 10 in response to these developments:
Tenure in Wisconsin
It is now clear that the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has adopted a policy that provides weaker protections of tenure, and thus of academic freedom, than what has long been the norm in Wisconsin and than what is called for under the standards approved by the American Association of University Professors. What is not clear is why the regents have adopted such a policy. The policy appears to be only the latest step in an ongoing attack on the University of Wisconsin as a public good that exists for the benefit of all citizens of the state. It jeopardizes the working conditions of faculty and academic staff as well as the learning conditions of students in the university. Weakening tenure at the University of Wisconsin weakens the University of Wisconsin.
The regents had an opportunity to affirm the University of Wisconsin System’s commitment to academic freedom and to the university’s continued contribution to the common good, as enshrined in the Wisconsin Idea. They failed to do so. The reason for the adoption of the present policy will likely become apparent when it is put into practice. The American Association of University Professors and its chapters in the state will pay close attention to how these policies are going to be deployed.
Why this matters in Michigan:
WMU faculty, along with professors at all public universities in the state, should note that in Michigan, the authority to govern public universities rests with each institution’s Board of Trustees rather than in Lansing. This means that no act of the state legislature, like the bill passed in Wisconsin and signed by the governor last July, would be required to shift this authority to institutional governance boards because they already have it.
But we are fortunate that WMU is a union campus. This means that despite the constitutional autonomy that vests our Board of Trustees with considerable power, our WMU-AAUP contract is a legally binding barrier to instituting similarly draconian policies on our own campus.
But make no mistake: We are going to have to be vigilant.
As we wrote in the spring Advocate, we all need to pay close attention to the developments in Wisconsin. The political realities that have led to this point — where tenure protections, academic freedom, and faculty rights to due process in one of the most highly regarded state university systems in the United States are being systematically dismantled before our eyes — are not contained by state borders.
There are powerful people and organizations in this state and beyond who are watching what is unfolding in Wisconsin right now with gleeful anticipation. There is no question but that they would like to try to impose similar policies on state universities here in Michigan. And we are already seeing resource-shifting on our own campus that is cause for concern.
At WMU, the only thing standing in the way of the kind of abridgment of faculty rights that we are seeing in Wisconsin is our union contract. We are fortunate to have a strong union and powerful contract language. But the state legislature has shown no sign that they plan to back off on trying to pass more anti-union legislation, which is part of what made what is now happening in Wisconsin possible. Additionally, the misplaced priorities of the Republican-controlled legislature in Michigan and their ongoing disinvestment in public higher education indicate that tough times on our own campus are very likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.
That means if we intend to preserve our rights as faculty, we are going to have to fight for them. Complacency is not an option.
Please plan to attend the WMU-AAUP chapter meeting scheduled for Friday, April 8, at 1:30pm, in 105 Bernhard Center. We will discuss the situation in Wisconsin, how we can stand with our colleagues there, and how we can stand up against encroachments on tenure, academic freedom, and due-process rights here on our own campus. All members of the WMU-AAUP bargaining unit are encouraged to attend this important meeting.
Read more about developments in Wisconsin:
“Attack on college tenure threatens our humanities,” Hartford Courant, March 13, 2016.
“Attack on tenure harms academic freedom,” LaCrosse Tribune, Mar 7, 2016.
“‘Fake’ Tenure?” Inside Higher Ed, March 11, 2016.
“Regents approve new policies for UW tenure over professors’ objections,” Wisconsin State Journal, March 11, 2016.
“Wisconsin: Now the real battle begins,” Academe Blog, March 11, 2016.
“Wisconsin regents approve new layoff and tenure policies over faculty objections,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 10, 2016.
National AAUP Issues Statement on Developments in Wisconsin
(As reported in the Spring 2016 issue of the WMU-AAUP Advocate newsletter)
At a time when faculty rights to tenure and due process are being challenged by administrators and lawmakers nationwide, as well as misrepresented to the public, the national AAUP’s Statement on Developments in the University of Wisconsin System, issued on November 5, 2015, is an important reminder of some of the foundational principles of our profession.
After the Wisconsin legislature removed tenure and shared governance protections for UWS faculty, the AAUP and AFT-Wisconsin called on the UWS Board of Regents to enact policies consistent with AAUP principles through a process involving faculty and staff governance bodies. The Regents temporarily enshrined prior statutory language regarding tenure and shared governance and created a system-wide task force to craft new policy. In an initial conversation with the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, the UWS administration pledged that the new policies would follow AAUP standards.
However, early draft recommendations from the task force were fraught with conflicts with AAUP policies and standards. But in December 2015, the task force finalized an improved set of draft policies, although some faculty members who served on the task force questioned draft language related to post-tenure review and language regarding layoffs added by the UW System general counsel. Faculty members worried that “allowing for layoffs to accommodate program changes short of discontinuation raises the risk that faculty will be targeted for engaging in unpopular speech or controversial lines of research.” (“UW tenure task force wraps up on a note of uncertainty,” Capital Times, December 24, 2015.)
Vice President of the UWS Board of Regents John Behling, who chairs the task force, wrote in an op-ed that UWS “must be able to operate more like modern private and nonprofit sector organizations that, in challenging and often unpredictable times, respond to changing market forces, demographics, trends and demands.” On layoffs, Behling wrote: “Our new policy proposal empowers chancellors to discontinue programs as necessary for educational or financial reasons, and, if absolutely necessary, it allows for faculty in those programs to be laid off.” (“Opinion: UW tenure reforms provide flexibility, accountability,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, December 22, 2015.)
While Behling maintains that “Tenure is a critical bedrock of higher education,” critics point out that the Regents “can’t have it both ways.” In a letter to the editor responding to Behling’s op-ed, Chad Alan Goldberg, Professor of Sociology at UW-Madison, wrote that the Regents “can either uphold a strong tenure policy or it can give administrators more flexibility to fire faculty.” He added that “The purpose of a strong tenure policy is precisely to limit administrators’ flexibility to reallocate resources and staff so that such decisions do not infringe on academic freedom and are based on educational considerations as determined primarily by the people most qualified to do so, namely, the faculty.” Finally, he reminded the Regents and the public that tenure is “not a ‘job for life’; it’s a right to due process.” (“Letter to the Editor: Regents can’t have it both ways,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, December 29, 2015.)
The draft policy will go to the UWS Board of Regents in February. Behling said that their staff “will refine the drafts” of the policies on tenure and on post-tenure review and that “the language could change further at the hand of regents.” (“UW tenure task force wraps up on a note of uncertainty,” Capital Times, December 24, 2015.)
The AAUP national staff and leadership, along with AAUP faculty and their chapters in Wisconsin, remain vigilant in working to ensure that UWS policies comport with AAUP standards, but current developments are not promising.
In Michigan, the authority to govern public universities already rests with each institution’s Board of Trustees. We need to watch the developments in Wisconsin because the political realities behind them are not bound by state borders. At WMU, the only protection for faculty rights is our union contract. Fortunately, we have a strong union and powerful contract language. But it will take our ongoing vigilance to preserve our rights as faculty.