UW-Madison, the Board of Regents and tenure

On Friday, April 8, the UW Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve a UW-Madison policy on tenure. The vote brings to conclusion a process around layoff and termination rules that stretches back to the end of the budget process last summer.

Like many of the faculty, I wish our existing tenure policies would have remained unchanged in state statute. Wisconsin’s tenure policy had for decades been a national model for higher education. Any change was bound to create controversy because tenure has such importance to faculty as an assurance that they can pursue open inquiry and innovative research.

Tenure provides freedom to pursue a research agenda that might be bolder, take longer to come to fruition, or that might generate controversy.  I can personally testify that I did my best work after receiving tenure. Tenure allowed me to take on a few bigger and riskier research projects, which took longer to complete but resulted in papers whose findings contributed something more fundamental to the field.

Let me talk about why I believe the new tenure policy is workable, consistent with our peers, and provides tenure protections that should reassure our faculty.

First a little history: The Legislature last spring deleted existing tenure language in state statute and gave the Regents the responsibility for establishing policies around tenure at UW System campuses. The legislature also indicated that tenured faculty could be laid off for reasons including “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” This language gave Regents the authority to write policy covering all of these situations, but it did not require them to do so.

In March, the Board approved a broad System-wide policy relating to tenure and the layoff of tenured faculty members. That policy allowed layoffs to be considered only in cases of financial emergency or program discontinuance due to educational considerations.  To state this clearly: The Regents chose not to allow layoffs of tenured faculty in the case of program changes or modifications. This aspect of our policy is consistent with and in some cases stronger than some of our peers.

Starting last summer, a UW-Madison faculty committee took a great deal of time and effort to craft a policy specific to our university that was approved by the Faculty Senate last November.  This policy details exactly how decisions around financial emergencies or program closures would be made, and the process to be followed if faculty are targeted for layoff.

The University Committee asked me to request approval for this UW-Madison policy (as is required under System rules) once the Board of Regents adopted its System-wide policy last month. In several places, the Madison policy was inconsistent with the System-wide policy and both the UC and I expected that the UW-System legal staff would propose some amendments to bring our policy into conformity with the new System policy. Hence, the UW-Madison policy just approved by the Board is an amended version of the policy recommended by the Faculty Senate.

At its recent meeting, the Faculty Senate made it clear that they preferred the unamended policy. But the Regents hold final say over tenure policy (as they do at other schools), and our policies have to be consistent with Regent statutes. What are a few of the main differences? Consistent with the new Regent policy, the amendments make it clear that the chancellor is the final decision-maker on faculty layoffs following review and recommendations from a number of faculty committees. The amendments also set severance pay available to any laid-off faculty member at 12 months, whereas the original proposal had a more variable policy based on seniority.

The new UW-Madison policy, approved by the Board of Regents is posted here and includes an annotated version, which shows the changes made to the original proposed policy and explains why they were made.

The approved UW-Madison policy allows faculty to play a strong role in any decision about financial emergencies or program closure. Among the protections in the policy:

  • The only time that faculty layoff or termination can be considered is because of financial emergency or program closure due to educational considerations.
  • An ‘appropriate faculty body’ must write an assessment of the institution’s financial condition prior to the Chancellor recommending that Regents declare a financial emergency, and this assessment is part of the materials considered by the Regents.
  • When a program that might produce faculty layoffs is considered for discontinuation for educational considerations, this proposal must be reviewed and voted on by the faculty of the affected department, the school/college governing board, and either the University Academic Planning Council (if an undergrad program) or the Graduate Faculty Executive Committee (if a grad program). The Chancellor makes the final decision based on these reviews.
  • Faculty recommended for layoff may request a hearing on this decision.
  • Any faculty who is laid off is eligible for either 12 more months of employment or 12 months of severance pay.

I have been at other schools where major program closures have occurred in the past. Northwestern University closed its dental school; the University of Michigan closed its Journalism School. Both schools closed their Geography Department. At no point did any tenured faculty member lose their job. There are two reasons for this:

  • First, closing a department or school rarely means that that area is no longer being taught. Rather, the work is typically integrated into other departments.  This means that the possibility of layoff is rare even when program closures occur, because most faculty naturally shift into other appointments in other units and continue their teaching and research as before.
  • Second, even if an area is being more permanently shut down, top-ranked universities always take care of their tenured faculty. UW-Madison is a top national university. I cannot imagine a situation where program closures would not result in a clear plan for faculty to be absorbed into other areas.

One controversy over the Board policy and over the amendments to UW-Madison policy is in the use of less robust language around finding alternative appointments for faculty whose program is closing, which may be appropriate for a System-wide policy covering a diverse set of schools. There were changes to the UW-Madison document to bring its language into alignment with Board policy on this issue. I want to be clear that we will take all steps to retain tenured faculty at UW-Madison.

For these reasons, I view much of the debate around this policy as more symbolic than substantive at UW-Madison. And while symbolism is important, as long as this University is a top-ranked institution we will behave like other top-ranked universities. That means we don’t layoff tenured faculty. Period.

The approved UW-Madison policy is consistent with our peers.  This is important in our ability to recruit and retain our top faculty. For those who are concerned, I strongly urge you to read our policy and then read the tenure policy of the University of Michigan or the University of North Carolina so you have a comparison.

After a difficult nine months of debate, I hope everyone will give this new policy a chance.  I believe we have a policy under which we can operate effectively. Let’s move on to the many other challenges and opportunities in front of us.