Wisconsin Lawmakers Take Aim at Tenure and Shared Governance

M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal, AP Images

Raymond W. Cross, president of the U. of Wisconsin system (shown meeting with staff members shortly after his appointment last year), entered talks with the governor about winning more autonomy for the system. Some professors say those efforts were misguided.
May 31, 2015

Faculty members at the University of Wisconsin were disheartened on Friday after a state legislative committee approved proposals that would limit the faculty’s role in shared governance and eliminate laws protecting tenure.

The proposed changes, which some see as an attack on academic freedom, came from the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which is working to finalize the state budget. Both chambers will still have to approve the budget before it goes to the governor, who could alter the document further with his line-item veto power.

The university system’s president and Board of Regents have promised to adopt new tenure protections in the university’s policies. But some faculty members have lost trust in the system’s leaders, whom they blame for leading a misguided attempt to free the system from many state regulations as a "public authority."

The system’s president, Raymond W. Cross, had negotiated with Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to give the system that autonomy. But the governor also wanted the system to absorb a $300-million budget cut over two years and freeze tuition during that period.

While the autonomy plan was rejected by legislators, they lowered the budget cut by only $50 million, to $250 million, and left the tuition freeze in place.

"We were never, never going to get public authority," said Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at the flagship campus, in Madison.

Tenure Off Track

In addition to eliminating tenure from state laws, the legislative committee approved a measure that would allow the university to lay off tenured faculty members without declaring financial exigency — for example, when the university discontinued an academic program.

While the outlines of shared governance would remain in state statute, lawmakers voted to insert language that would make all faculty, student, and staff advice "subordinate to" the authority of the campus and system leaders.

"That’s a seismic change," said Mr. Radomski, because it would centralize power in the system’s president and Board of Regents and away from other groups that have traditionally shared in the decision-making process.

In addition, the board soon will consider a policy to give its members more authority while limiting the role of faculty members in searches for new campus leaders, according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In a written statement, Michael J. Falbo, president of the Board of Regents, said the board appreciated the new "spirit of collaboration" between the system and the Legislature. "With President Cross’s leadership, this new sense of partnership has helped us get to where we are today. It has also set a new standard and tone for how we can best serve our students, our institutions, the state, and taxpayers in the future."

For his part, Mr. Cross expressed gratitude that lawmakers had reduced the proposed budget cut and had also granted the university some limited freedom from state procurement laws and construction rules when all of the money comes from grants or philanthropic gifts.

"I know this has been a difficult budget with many tough decisions. The work of the committee illustrates a willingness to open a new dialogue and partnership between the Legislature and the UW System," Mr. Cross said in a written statement.

In a separate statement, Mr. Cross and the board’s vice president, Regina Millner, said the board would move to put tenure into system policies "immediately."

Taken together, the proposed changes in tenure and shared governance represent a broad attack on academic freedom, said Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. If faculty members can’t help determine the budget and spending priorities at their campus, they are losing the ability to set the academic direction of the institution.

Even if the board puts tenure back into systemwide policy, Mr. Radomski said, it could be weakened in the future by the board members, who are appointed by the governor and are not friendly to those protections for faculty members.

Faculty-union leaders were more direct in their criticism of legislators.

"What happened today is a major blow to academic freedom by a group of wealthy and powerful politicians who seem to fear a population capable of critical thought," said Richard Leson, an associate professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and president of the Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at