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Tenure and the University of Wisconsin System

By Hans-Joerg Tiede

Last year, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker claimed to have “modernized” the concept of tenure in the state after the legislature struck from state law long-standing provisions that had protected tenure, thereby providing the state university system’s board of regents an opportunity to adopt policies that contained less protection for academic freedom and tenure than had previously existed in state code. The legislature’s action immediately prompted condemnation from the national AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers–Wisconsin (AFT–W). It also prompted the revival of local AAUP chapters at several campuses within the University of Wisconsin system.

Since last summer, a task force appointed by the board of regents has been developing new tenure provisions. Drafts of these provisions released for comment were critiqued in detail by state chapter leaders as well as by staff in the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance. A statement by the national AAUP and the AFT–W released in February commented on the final draft policies released by the task force:

We are pleased to see that, over the course of the development of the draft regent policies on tenure, a number of central elements of the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure have been incorporated. The AAUP’s provisions on academic freedom and tenure are widely recognized as standards for sound academic practice and have been adopted by a large number of institutions of higher education. We remain concerned, however, that some of the provisions in the draft regent policy documents fall far short of those standards. Particularly alarming is the inclusion of a provision for program prioritization based primarily on financial considerations for the purpose of discontinuing academic programs and laying off faculty. Actions taken by administrations at several universities in the name of program prioritization have led to investigations of violations of academic freedom and tenure as well as the imposition of censure by the AAUP.

Attempts by faculty in the state to encourage further strengthening of the draft policies failed, and on March 10, the board of regents gave final approval to the tenure policies. The national AAUP released the following statement that day:

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 deployed.

A profile of one of the recently revived AAUP chapters in the state, the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee chapter, appears in this issue.

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