Chancellor Blank’s message to Faculty Senate

Chancellor Rebecca Blank shared the following message by email with faculty on June 9 ahead of an emergency meeting of the Faculty Senate.

As we prepare to meet, I want to again reiterate my deep support for and commitment to the principles of tenure. I understand your concerns about the changes recommended in the budget proposed by the Joint Committee on Finance. I have been working with others to address those changes and will continue doing so.

UW-Madison has a long history of standing up for the academic freedom of inquiry that tenure is designed to protect. In the 1890s, the state superintendent of education in Wisconsin tried to fire Professor Richard Ely from his tenured position at the University of Wisconsin because of his out-spoken support for progressive views. The Regents of the University refused to censure Professor Ely, stating that “…we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Tenure provides the protection that allow faculty freedom of inquiry into all topics, assuring that faculty research and speech will not be threatened by shifting political beliefs or the individual opinions of those in positions of authority. The tenure system in American universities is one reason why universities like UW have been an amazingly productive source of new ideas and innovation and a place where millions of Americans – often the first in their families to attend college – have received a first-rate education.

A road map forward

Today, I want you to know my views, help clarify some misperceptions, and provide a road map of how I see the process moving forward from here. This is a longer blog than usual since there are several issues I want to address in some detail. Read what is of interest to you.

I recognize that abrupt changes to tenure and shared governance — principles that have served the UW System well for more than a century– have the potential to drive away the very people we most need to attract and retain. That these changes are being recommended without consultation with or input from those who will be most affected only adds to our collective concerns. I am very worried about the risk this is creating for our University, by angering faculty who we want and need at UW.

That process, combined with the fact that, at present, all we have is summarized language of legislative intent rather than a draft of the actual statutory language, has understandably caused substantial angst about the impact of this language if passed by the full legislature and signed into law.

These changes are the latest in a series of accumulating events that have created an unhealthy and unwelcoming atmosphere around higher education in recent months. This university and the entire UW System has been subject to unprecedented scrutiny. The subjects that we study, how hard our faculty work, the inclusiveness of our governance model and most recently, our tenure protections, have come into question. All of this has understandably taken a toll on morale.

I will re-state emphatically what I have said earlier: I will not accept a tenure policy that is inconsistent with our peers, or that violates accepted standards. I pledge to make no changes in existing practice at UW-Madison until such a policy is clearly established.

I recognize, however, that in light of the potential changes to state law this may not provide the level of assurance to make everyone in our academic community feel comfortable. So let me address several specific issues.

First and foremost, tenure will continue as part of Board of Regents policy. Last Friday the Regents voted unanimously to adopt a tenure policy, using the exact language that has been used in state law. Governing board policy is where tenure is defined at our peer public (and private) institutions.

I also recognize that many faculty at UW considered this state’s statutory language a particularly strong tenure protection. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Regent policy or statutory language is likely to be more stable. I myself do not necessarily consider Regent policy weaker than state statute. Regents accept a seven-year appointment often because they are alums of UW schools and want to see our institutions thrive. During their service, they become familiar with how universities operate…much more familiar than legislators. The speed with which the Regents acted to immediately install tenure language in policy is a signal that they realize the importance of this issue. Every Regent has spoken to the importance of maintaining strong tenure systems within UW System schools.

Second, several individuals have asked me if any of these changes threaten our accreditation and I want to unambiguously state that our accreditation and other standards are not at risk. The Higher Learning Commission has assured us of this directly.

Third, like you, I am deeply concerned with proposed language that would allow layoffs of faculty for ‘program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.’ (That’s the language used in Section 39 of the omnibus motion from the Joint Finance Committee.) This leaves the impression that faculty can be dismissed when minor program changes occur, and creates a sense that tenure protection is limited. I am working to try to remove or modify this language so that it is more clearly consistent with American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recommended policy. President Ray Cross is also having conversations on this issue.

The standards for tenure published by AAUP allow universities to consider dismissal of tenured faculty for three reasons: just cause (malfeasance), financial exigency, or in cases of “program discontinuance for educational reasons.” It would be better if the proposed language was more limited (say, only mentioned program discontinuance) and hence more consistent with AAUP tenure standards.

Protecting tenure in difficult circumstances

Despite our best efforts, we may be unable to modify the language approved by the committee. Let me explain why and how we can implement strong tenure protections in this circumstance.
The statutory language in the proposed budget would only create the authority to act. If the Legislature adopts Section 39 as proposed, we can adopt rules or policies that outline when we invoke that authority and the process we follow to make such a decision.

Section 39 isn’t a command or directive. It merely authorizes the Board of Regents to lay-off faculty for the stated reasons. The Regents can decide when and how they want to invoke that authority. In addition, we at UW-Madison have authority to design an HR system for UW-Madison. With authorization from the Board of Regents, this gives us the ability to write policies that determine when and how the Section 39 authority is to be invoked on campus.

It would be straightforward to write language that says we will invoke this authority when programs are being closed due to financial emergencies or due to program redirection for educational purposes (the language in the AAUP tenure standards). And we have the right to craft policies about the process we follow when invoking such authority. Those policies will almost surely be consistent with standard tenure practice, including extensive faculty involvement in decision-making as well as looking at all alternatives (such as relocation to another department) before actually laying off a tenured faculty member.

An analogy is the current power to lay-off or terminate in case of a financial emergency, which is in current law. The Legislature passed a statute authorizing such a move. The Board of Regents adopted administrative rules about how and when faculty could be laid off or terminated in the event of a financial emergency. But the Board is not “violating” the financial emergency statute because it hasn’t ever declared a financial emergency. Statutes frequently leave room for agencies to decide when to use the authority conferred by the Legislature.

The University Committee (UC) is appointing a faculty committee to recommend policies that specify when and how we invoke this new authority. My hope is that the UC committee might complete its work in time to take a proposed policy to the first fall meeting of the Faculty Senate this coming October.

I should also note that I have clear approval from System President Ray Cross as well as from Regent President Regina Millner for UW-Madison to write policies for our campus. There may be other campuses that write their own policies, or there may be a UW System policy that applies to many of the other schools. But just as we are implementing our own HR System at UW-Madison, which is somewhat different from the new HR system that will be implemented by UW-System, so we will write and implement our own tenure protections. Like all such policies, our final language will require Board of Regent approval, which I am confident will be forthcoming for any language consistent with standard tenure policy. This helps establish the stability and credibility of these policies, and assures that they will not change when the next Chancellor is appointed.

Fourth, the Joint Finance motion also makes changes to shared governance. Without seeing the actual draft language around shared governance, it’s difficult right now to respond to specifics – the current language is much more vague than the language around tenure. But let me say this: I remain firm in my belief that an inclusive, transparent governance process brings the best ideas to the forefront, builds consensus, and improves decision making. I have spoken about the importance of shared governance with legislators and Regents alike in the past, and will continue to do so. Universities run best when there is broad consultation and I expect that to continue at UW-Madison.

Staying committed to the Wisconsin Idea

One of the things that I’ve treasured here at UW is the commitment of faculty and staff to this institution. People love this place and are settled here. I know how precious that is and how hard it would be to rebuild if it were lost. That’s why this situation makes me worried …. and angry. I strongly believe that we can deal with these changes and faculty jobs will not be substantially different six months from now than they were six months ago. But there has been too much change coming at us without consultation and too fast. It will take a little time to work through all this.

I regret the negative national publicity this has created for UW, and the problems this creates for hiring and retaining our excellent UW faculty. I know some of our faculty are already receiving phone calls from other institutions. I hope they will let this process move forward before answering those calls.

UW (like almost all other public universities) has regularly faced these sort of challenges before. Bills to eliminate tenure were introduced in the state legislature in both 1971 and 1973. And don’t even ask about the 1915 legislature from 100 years ago that wanted to virtually eliminate all funding for UW. These political battles are part of being a public institution. They have forced us to articulate clearly what we do here and why we do it. They have also forced us to constantly reach out to the state, helping build a commitment to the Wisconsin Idea. UW has survived and thrived through past challenges and we will do so again.

This university offers a uniquely collaborative community in which to work. All of us care too much about this place to accept anything less than maintaining UW-Madison as one of the world’s top public institutions. Together, we can ensure that is the case.

On, Wisconsin.