Don’t Change UW System’s Governance
There’s already an exodus of top faculty concerned about ending tenure.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, Wisconsin invested in a bigger and better university system so that the promise of upward mobility could become a reality for more of its citizenry. A small army of scholars, proud to have been chosen to pursue their careers and put down roots in Wisconsin, built the academic integrity of our many campuses. Their research and teaching created opportunities for students far beyond their previous prospects.
The success of this expansion was a direct result of the university’s governance and tenure processes, the details of which can be found in Chapter 36 of the Wisconsin Statutes. In the UW System, the faculty share in governing their campus institution; they have primary responsibility for decisions on hiring, promotion and tenure, salary, curriculum, and evaluation and reward of research. Recently, Gov. Scott Walker tried to diminish the faculty role and replace it with a more “top-down authority” model under the control of his appointees. Portrayed as a “reform,” this plan was hatched in secret and pursued in haste. The goal was to convert this incredibly successful state university system into a so-called “public authority” before the consequences of such a change received any public scrutiny. None of the governor’s proposed changes were put before the voters or even mentioned during the recent gubernatorial campaign. Once it was made public, the fundamental weaknesses in the plan became known and soon lost favor with the Board of Regents.
The primary advantage claimed for the public authority model was that it would give the regents the “tools” necessary to save money so as to offset some of the budget cuts imposed in the past twenty years. However, at their March 5th meeting, the regents learned that these promised savings paled in comparison to the cuts. Moreover, Regent David Walsh, the designer of the public authority now in place for the UW Hospitals and Clinics, warned that under a public authority, the UWS would lose its “sovereign immunity.” This means that were the UWS to become a public authority, it would lose key protections from lawsuits that are afforded state agencies and, in addition, it would be subject to paying property taxes and other fees in the counties and municipalities where campuses are located. He noted that the public authority model does not even provide procurement savings beyond those readily available by simply reducing the role of the Department of Administration in the procurement process.
At their meeting, the regents resolved to keep governance and tenure within regent policy, even if Chapter 36 is eventually taken out of statute. Rather than admit that the public authority plan is fatally flawed and would do serious further damage to the system, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Joint Finance co-chair Senator John Nygren lambasted the regents for not being “ready” to use the “tools” of the public authority to make “needed changes.” They revealed that those “needed changes” are, of course, a diminished concept of tenure and a reduced faculty role in governance.
Already the national publicity over the threat to tenure and governance in Wisconsin has caused some scholars to spurn offers for hire at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, and a mini-exodus of faculty is already underway. There is still time to stop this destructive effort. Wisconsin should re-dedicate itself to the ideals that made the UWS a great institution. It can and should once again be a magnet for the best faculty to come here. Rather than lose faculty to other states, let us welcome top scholar/refugees from those states foolish enough to downgrade their university systems. To gain a competitive advantage, all we have to do is stop being one of the foolish states. The Wisconsin Idea is not just some slogan on a plaque; it is a call to action precisely at times like the present.
William L. Holahan is emeritus professor and former chair of the Department of Economics at UW-Milwaukee. Charles O. Kroncke is retired dean of the College of Business at UWM. They are co-authors of “Economics for Voters.”