Tenure should be protected, but not at all costs

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SYSTEM faculty members have expressed outrage after the UW Board of Regents voted recently on tenure changes and an email surfaced from UW System President Ray Cross stating tenure should not protect faculty “who are no longer needed in a discipline.”

Faculty on at least six campuses have since voiced their disapproval with Cross and the state Board of Regents, with faculty groups on at least five campuses taking no-confidence votes in Cross and the board, essentially asking the board and Cross to change course or step down.

Hearing about this, you would think that the UW System was proposing eliminating tenure altogether. But that is not the case.

According to the policy that the Board of Regents approved in March, the times when a tenured professor could be laid off would be very limited.

The policy states, “Faculty layoff will be invoked only in extraordinary circumstances and after all feasible alternatives have been considered. Layoff shall not be based on conduct, expressions, or beliefs on the faculty member’s part that are constitutionally protected or protected by the principles of academic freedom.”

It also states, “Tenure is an essential part of the guarantee of academic freedom that is necessary for university-based intellectual life to flourish.”

It states right there the importance of tenure. Professors shouldn’t be fired because a chancellor doesn’t agree with their viewpoints.

But as the world and our state evolves, the demand for different occupations changes.

As part of that, on some occasions, a professor may need to be let go.

That is what the newly released UW tenure policy says.

“Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System (Board) has authority, with appropriate notice, to terminate through layoff a faculty appointment when necessary in the event of a financial emergency, or a program decision resulting in program discontinuance.”

If the new policy didn’t have protection written in for academic freedom, we would be concerned. But the new policy explicitly states layoffs would only happen in cases of extraordinary circumstances.

In a released statement, Board of Regents President Regina Millner called faculty’s recent no-confidence votes an “overreaction to the Board’s decision to put in place very reasonable and fair tenure and layoff policies - something the Legislature directed us to do.”

She goes on to say, “These policies align with our peer institutions and allow us to remain competitive for the recruitment and retention of quality faculty.”

We want to keep the best and brightest faculty teaching at our universities. We don’t want them to leave Wisconsin or fear losing their jobs. But as times change, the universities need to evolve.

Millner is right: The recent votes of no confidence seem to be an overreaction. — The Journal Times of Racine, May 17

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