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Gov. Walker Proposal Would Weaken Tenure in Wisconsin

college.library, flickr
An aerial view of UW-Madison's campus.

The battle over Wisconsin’s tenure law will soon be waged in the state Assembly and Senate. Gov. Walker proposed eliminating the law in the budget he handed legislators. 

The Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee agreed and will soon send its plan to the full Legislature. Tenure is the longstanding practice of offering job protection to university professors. Wisconsin is the only state where tenure is written into law.

For people in the world of academia, tenure is typically one of their great achievements. Just ask Nicholas Fleisher. He teaches linguistics at UW-Milwaukee.

"If the proposed changes become law in this budget, I think you will see literally almost everyone in the University of Wisconsin System looking for jobs elsewhere." - UWM Assistant Professor Nicholas Fleisher

“Earning tenure is like the ultimate performance and merit exercise. You have to get a PH.D., typically you have to do some either post doc or some either job before you land your first tenure track job. And then you have this long probationary on the tenure track, typically six years where you have to research, you have to teach, you have to do service to the institution. And you have to do those at the highest level, really. And then comes this ultimate evaluation of whether you’re going to earn tenure in the end,” Fleisher says.

Fleisher started his journey toward becoming a tenured professor 13 years ago, and next year, he’ll be up for evaluation. He says he’s concerned about how the UW System might look at that point.

“If the proposed changes become law in this budget, I think you will see literally almost everyone in the University of Wisconsin System looking for jobs elsewhere. Not everyone will be able to find them, but it will have a major effect on the campuses ability to retain people,” Fleisher says.

Right now under Wisconsin law, tenured professors can be let go for a few reasons - committing a crime, failing to meet certain standards or if there’s a financial emergency. The proposed budget directs the UW Board of Regents to set tenure policy, and allows the system to dismiss faculty if the program changes.

UW-Madison is opposed to the proposed tenure changes.

Nancy Kendall worries about politics invading higher education; the governor appoints nearly all the Regents. Kendall teaches education policy at UW-Madison.

“It will destroy the capacity of faculty and the university to do the research that we need done to understand our world around really key issues that politicians don’t favor right now like climate change, like sex education,” Kendall says.

While Wisconsin remains the only state with a tenure law, it is also the only state moving to weaken its tenure tradition, according to Terry Hartle. He’s senior vice president of the American Council on Education based in Washington D.C. Hartle says other states, such as Texas, are working to lure top talent.

“Governor Abbott signed legislation into law that creates a fund to enable Texas to seek to hire Nobel Laureates and National Academy of Sciences award winners and to attract them to Texas,” Hartle says. 

Wisconsin Republicans insist the leaders of the UW System will have more power to compete if state law no longer dictates tenure. Rep. John Nygren is co-chair of the legislature’s budget committee.

"They’re going to have the ability to make those decisions themselves. Now, the people that we empower to run our system, the people that empower to run our individual campuses are going to have the ability to make those decisions themselves,” Nygren says.   

While the political debate over tenure continues in Wisconsin, it seems some outside institutions may be trying to capitalize on the uncertainty. For instance, UWM Math Professor Mike Steele says he’s gotten a couple offers in recent weeks.

“The fact that we’re getting some now is actually quite extraordinary. This is not the time of year where universities are tending to recruit for positions,” Steele says.

Wisconsin lawmakers are expected to pass the budget bill yet this month that includes moving tenure decisions from state law to leaders of the UW System.

LaToya Dennis discusses tenure with UW Madison Education Policy Professor Nancy Kendall, who wrote a recent commentary about the debate for "The New Republic."

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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