Why Act 55’s changes don’t make sense for UW

The UW-Madison Faculty Senate as well as the Board of Regents are grappling with the challenge of responding to the provisions of the Legislature’s Act 55. That legislation calls for wholesale change in policies that deal with tenure, post-tenure review, faculty governance, and termination of academic programs and departments.

What surprises me is the absence of any evidence demonstrating that these policies are not working effectively and need to be changed. If damning evidence of deficiencies exists, we would surely have heard of it by now.

Off-hand comments that professors should teach more or they should not have jobs for life are complaints. They say nothing about whether these long-standing policies should be changed.

Key to understanding the events of the past few months is the governor’s release of his 2015-17 budget. It proposed an unprecedented rewriting the mission of the UW System. It called on the UW System to focus on “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” It called for eliminating the “Wisconsin Idea” that describes the UW System’s commitment to serving the people of the state. It called for casting aside the goals that encourage the UW System to engage in the “search for truth” and seek to “improve the human condition.”

These proposed mission statement changes provoked a huge outcry. They were quickly described by the governor as the result of a “drafting error” and later the result of “simple miscommunication.” The governor had no alternative but to withdraw his proposed rewrite of the UW System’s mission.

My guess is that the changes in mission, most importantly the goal of “meeting the state’s workforce needs,” led to questions during its drafting about how to implement that goal. Three obvious answers show up in Act 55. Eliminate or scale back programs that do not contribute to that goal. Eliminate restrictions on terminating tenured faculty in these programs. Eliminate the role of faculty in making decisions on these policies.

When the governor had to back down on his recasting of the mission statement, the rationale disappeared for changing existing policies on tenure, terminations and academic unit closures. Unfortunately, none of Act 55’s provisions were eliminated as they should have been. This means the policies needed to implement the governor’s workforce plan remain intact.

With enactment of Act 55, the Board of Regents and its task force, as well as the University Committee and its ad hoc committee, have been charged with deciding what course of action to take. Numerous senators and faculty members are contributing to this effort, including PROFS (a nonprofit, voluntary UW-Madison faculty organization) as well as members of the local American Association of University Professors chapter and the local American Federation of Teachers chapter.

The Faculty Senate’s report to the Board of Regents should make clear the following. First, evidence is lacking to justify the changes called for in Act 55. Second, Act 55 offers no assurance its provisions will make the UW System “more efficient, more effective, and more accountable.”

Third, Act 55 may produce just the opposite effect. Its provisions will push the UW System toward the governor’s goal of “meeting the state’s workforce needs” while it must continue pursuing its unchanged mission, “to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise and a sense of purpose.” Since it can’t do both, something has to give. Let’s make it the governor’s never-defined goal of “meeting state’s workforce needs.”

Finally, the Faculty Senate’s report should insist that the Board of Regents adhere to the “gold standard” policies of the American Association of University Professors, policies that former UW faculty members helped create and that have made the UW System the envy of the academic world.

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