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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Proposed UW System Tenure Policy Stirs National Interest

JeffChristianse, flickr

On Friday, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents agreed to move ahead with a controversial new tenure policy. It would replace the tenure protections that Republican leaders struck from state law during the last budget cycle. 

When Republican legislators removed tenure protections from state law, UW system leaders told upset faculty not to worry - the system would preserve protections through new policies.

Now, a faculty task force has come up with a plan that lays out processes for reviewing and laying off tenured faculty.

Under the plan, faculty would be reviewed every five years after attaining tenure. Professors who meet standards could be eligible for merit raises; those who don’t could face dismissal.

A second policy would allow campus administrators tolet tenured faculty go if their academic program is discontinued.

Regent Vice President John Behling headed the task force. He told the regents late last week that it drafted the policies with three goals in mind:

  • To reaffirm the board and the UW system's commitment to strong tenure and academic freedom,
  • To increase accountability to the students and taxpayers of the state, and
  • To ensure Wisconsin has a comparable tenure policy that allows us to continue to compete in the global education marketplace.

Behling says the plan borrows from policies at comparable university systems, including in Maryland and Michigan. He insists the changes will emphasize accountability and competition among professors.

Critics disagree, predicting the plan will make it harder for the UW system to recruit and retain faculty.

Higher ed interests across the country are watching.

Scott Jaschik is editor of the online publication Inside Higher Ed. He says folks who monitor national education issues are keenly interested in Wisconsin’s tenure debate. He guesses that’s because many have long admired the UW system and fear its reputation could fade if this new policy takes shape.

"They view Wisconsin, or have viewed Wisconsin very favorably, which is why this was such a surprise to people," Jaschik says. "They are talking about real changes in the provisions that involve termination of faculty members. These are principals that professors care about deeply. And they care about what’s happening to their colleagues."

And, Jaschhik says, they worry that what happens here could happen at colleges and universities around the country.

The Board of Regents will vote whether to approve the new tenure policy at its next meeting, March 10.

An extended conversation between WUWM's education reporter Rachel Morello and Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed.

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