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Wisconsin Regents Stymie Madison Faculty’s Bid to Restore Protections From Layoffs

[Updated (4/7/2016, 3:50 p.m.) with comments by the Madison campus's provost during the committee's deliberations.]

The Faculty Senate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison has been largely thwarted in its effort to restore at the campus level many of the faculty powers and job protections that were stripped out of the university system’s policies last month.

The education committee of the university system’s Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously approved, with little discussion, a version of the Madison policy without most provisions that the campus’s Faculty Senate had proposed to restore rights its members had lost. Stricken from the policy was language giving the faculty a guaranteed say over any decisions to jettison academic programs and their tenured professors.

The committee’s actions, which the full board is expected to endorse on Friday, bode ill for faculty senates on other Wisconsin campuses, which had looked to the Madison flagship to stake out the contours of policies that could be adopted elsewhere. Being financially healthier than many other system campuses and needing to compete nationally for academic talent, Madison had been relatively well positioned to argue that its ability to offer strong tenure protections was more important than its flexibility to cut programs.

“Madison will probably be the high bar, and that high bar has been lowered substantially,” said David J. Vanness, president of the Madison campus’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “All of the things that other campuses were hoping would be in the policy, to restore some protection, are being taken out.”

The education committee’s decision to revise the policy on Thursday defied the wishes of Madison’s Faculty Senate. On Monday the Faculty Senate had passed a resolution that called its proposals “the product of lawful faculty governance in accordance with the faculty’s primary responsibility for educational matters” and urged the board either to approve the policy “without material alteration” or to return it to the Faculty Senate for modification.

Thursday’s committee vote was “basically the board exerting its maximum authority over the faculty,” Mr. Vanness said. “It sets a very bad precedent.”

In calling for the education committee to alter policy language proposed by Madison’s Faculty Senate, Tomas L. Stafford, the university system’s general counsel, had argued that the campus’s policy needed to be consistent with the system’s.

Among the changes he made, Mr. Stafford removed from the Madison policy a provision attempting to require campus administrators to pursue, not just consider, alternatives to faculty layoffs. The regents last month rejected a proposed amendment to the system’s policy similarly calling for administrators to pursue alternatives to layoffs.

In urging the committee to adopt the policy as revised by Mr. Stafford, the provost of the Madison campus, Sarah C. Mangelsdorf, argued that the changes were necessary “to be in compliance with state statute and regent policy” and to “make our proposed policy broadly consistent with our peers.”

“Our policy is a ‘real’ tenure policy,” Ms. Mangelsdorf said. Citing a provision that spells out a process by which the chancellor must seek faculty input in the case of a financial emergency, she said, “many other institutions’ policies have no such language.”

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