The University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents overwhelmingly approved new policies regarding layoffs and tenure on Thursday, despite the objections of faculty leaders and a few board members who argued that the changes would hurt the university system’s educational quality and recruitment of talented professors.
The debate over the policies, which are intended to replace tenure protections stripped from state law last year, became heated at times. Advocates of the new policies argued that they would be in line with those at peer institutions, give chancellors flexibility to adjust academic offerings in a tough fiscal climate, and offer sufficient assurances that layoffs and post-tenure reviews will not be used to squelch academic freedom.
Critics argued that the policies would leave tenured faculty members more vulnerable than their peers elsewhere to being laid off in retaliation for speaking out, and would let chancellors override shared governance and ignore important educational considerations in making faculty-layoff decisions.
Geoffrey D. Peterson, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire who is a faculty representative and a member of a systemwide panel of faculty representatives, told the regents that “economic factors cannot, and should not, take precedence over academic considerations and academic freedom.” He said faculty members were worried “that academic freedom has been wounded, perhaps gravely so,” as a result of the policy changes.
José Vásquez, a regent who opposed the new policies, drew applause from the audience at the board meeting by protesting that the financial pressures on the system were not its own doing but the result of a lack of adequate financial support from the state.
“It was not tenure that caused the fiscal crisis. It was not faculty who were entrenched and did not want to terminate programs,” Mr. Vásquez said. “The fiscal crisis that we have has been imposed on us.”
But Regina Millner, the board’s president, argued, “We cannot have quality, serve our students, have quality faculty, if we do not have a sound financial system.”
John Behling, the vice president, said, “When a chancellor is looking at a program discontinuance, they need flexibility, flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.”
Raymond W. Cross, president of the university system, told the board that, especially when dealing with problems such as academic programs with low enrollments, “it is almost impossible to separate fiscal issues from educational considerations.”
The board rejected proposals to amend the policies they were considering with language intended to ensure that decisions related to program discontinuance would be approved by faculty bodies and based mainly on educational considerations.
A proposal to tweak a call for faculty layoffs to occur only after “all feasible alternatives have been considered,” replacing it with a requirement that all feasible alternatives be pursued, failed on an 8-to-8 vote.