I am writing this open letter to you seeking a response to the current situation facing faculty across the UW System regarding imminent changes in policies governing tenure, shared governance, and academic freedom. I write out of a strong sense of frustration given the continued promise that, in spite of the state legislature’s removal of tenure protections from state statute via Act 55, that everything would ultimately turn out fine. That tenure would not change and would ultimately be consistent with the nationally recognized standards of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and be identical to protections enjoyed in peer institutions, and that shared governance that included the voices of faculty, staff, and students would not only be allowed but encouraged.
I have sat through at least four presentations to faculty where these promises were voiced. Perhaps most striking was an emergency meeting for all Assistant Professors on campus held early last summer, where I, and many colleagues, shared a strong sense of unease about our futures. You clearly stated that tenure protections would not change and that you had been assured by the UW System President Ray Cross that UW-Madison would be able to craft its own policies. This belief, that the System would allow policies that were in fact consistent with AAUP and peer institution standards, which is ultimately what was developed on campus and approved by the Faculty Senate in November, was also expressed in your “Statement on Tenure” from June 3, 2015.
Yet at the November Board of Regents meeting it became clear that the Regents intended to design their own system-wide policies prior to approving any campus-specific efforts. And that contrary to the assurances you had apparently received from President Cross, it was unclear whether the UW-Madison policies would in fact be allowed to stand. In fact, at the November faculty senate meeting, one member of the University Committee even stated that “It would be foolish to predict what policies the System will accept or what they will do next.”
So my first question is: What happened here? Was President Cross not telling the truth when he assured you that UW-Madison could develop its own policies? Or did you misunderstand what he told you in the aftermath of Act 55?
These are critically important questions because the draft policies from the UW System for “faculty layoff” and “tenured faculty review and development” were recently released, and they are in complete opposition to AAUP policies and peer institution standards. In fact, as written, they will essentially destroy tenure protections and give administrators the policy levers to discontinue programs and fire faculty.
They allow for faculty layoffs in the case of program discontinuance and redirection, which can be initiated by a single faculty member or administrator. The criterion for determining when this is necessary are vague, and the Chancellor (much like the CEO of a company) is give considerable power in determining the process by which programs are discontinued and faculty laid off. Perhaps worse, for post-tenure review faculty are assigned one of three scores – unsatisfactory, satisfactory, or excellent – based on criteria established by the institution and not the department, and faculty assigned an unsatisfactory rating even once are provided no due process to contest the finding and the resulting “performance remediation.”
Given the track record of the current state legislature in eliminating positions that are not aligned with their religious or political views (e.g., climate change and stem cell research), and in publicly disparaging programs whose “worth” to the labor market is not readily apparent (e.g., arts and humanities), it is not out of the question that these newfound powers could be used to pressure a Chancellor, a Dean, or even an individual faculty member to initiate proceedings for program discontinuance or to rate a colleague as “unsatisfactory” in order to eliminate faculty and programs that are considered by those in power to be distasteful or insufficiently vocational in nature.
Thus, instead of continuing the tradition of “sifting and winnowing” for the truth, we are faced with a future where politicians and administrators can wield power to “prune and cut” faculty and programs with which they disagree.
So my second question is: Given the writing on the wall, will you fight for us? Will you go to President Cross and demand that these draft policies be scrapped, and that the UW-Madison policies that truly represent a collaborative effort to preserve and maintain academic freedom be approved?
Please fight against these short-sighted policies in the same way you have fought against other, equally ill-advised policies such as concealed carry and the ban on stem cell research. The anger and frustration amongst your faculty and staff is palpable and spreading, and the growing challenges our campus will face in recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest cannot be solely pinned on the actions of the legislature, but the inactions and confusing messages being sent by our leadership.
Matthew T. Hora
Assistant Professor, Department of Liberal Arts & Applied Studies, Division of Continuing Studies
Research Scientist, Wisconsin Center for Education Research