Op Ed

Regents Changing How UW Leaders Hired

“Business-like” approach reduces faculty peer review, threatens academic excellence.

By - Oct 23rd, 2017 11:17 am
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Van Hise Hall in the background. Photo by James Steakley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Van Hise Hall in the background. Photo by James Steakley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The UW System, as a preeminent institution in US higher education, is enormously successful in contributing to life in Wisconsin. Despite this record, Gov. Scott Walker and the Board of Regents are convinced the system now needs a different type of leadership, one that will manage it in a more business-like fashion. Their latest move is to truncate the search process when recruiting top-level administrators (President, Chancellor, Provost, Dean), both by shortening the recruitment time and by reducing the participation of faculty and staff on search committees.

So far, their “business approach” has amounted to disinvestment in one of the highest-return assets the state has ever built. Rather than build on success, they are dismantling it. They imposed enormous campus budget cuts, downgraded the tenure system, and established a top-down management structure. They scoff that tenure leads to laziness and that shared governance thwarts a much-needed oversight of its employees. They regard the long-established university policy of requiring faculty majorities on search committees as enabling professors to “choose their own bosses.”

This restructuring reveals their profound misunderstanding of, if not disdain for, the academic enterprise, placing in jeopardy the progress and integrity of the institution that has been so successful in educating the citizenry of Wisconsin and in creating an ever-growing knowledge base. Academic faculty and staff are not conventional employees. They are experts in their discipline, conducting research and teaching in unique areas. Unlike traditional employees who take direction from managers and bosses, research faculty and staff advance the progress of knowledge by participating in the intense competition within their discipline to create new knowledge and to disseminate it. The community of scholars in each discipline is worldwide in scope and the scholarship of its members becomes accepted only after rigorous peer-review. Peer review by experts in the field assures that “new knowledge” entering the discipline meets a high standard of quality and significance.

When searching for academic administrators, it is essential to realize that they cannot possibly be “bosses” or “managers” like top management in the private sector. Unlike the business manager, university administrators cannot possibly be familiar with the nuances of the research work being performed on campus or the content of course instruction. Instead, they serve more as facilitators than as managers; their job is to help these scholars function at a high-level within peer-reviewed disciplines. Administrators are not able to directly evaluate that work. Credible evaluation can only be done by professional peers, and major decisions, like salary, promotion, and the awarding of tenure, are heavily dependent on and influenced by this outside evaluation.

Peer review is a professional practice that harnesses the intense competitive pressure within each discipline in a manner that is foreign to those with long experience in the business world. This way of operating has successfully worked for decades in Wisconsin, establishing the UW brand as one of the top in the world, with two campuses ranked by the Carnegie Foundation as top-tier research universities: world-class UW-Madison and the more-recently recognized UW-Milwaukee. Before these changes to the search procedures, the search committees were not choosing their own bosses, they were identifying administrative candidates thought to be capable of effective academic leadership; individuals who would sustain and continue to develop the campuses and programs and their academic integrity.

There were important protections built into the search process which are now being scrapped. The typical search for an executive level university administrator was a two-stage process, each stage with a committee. The first, a “search and screen” committee would apply professional academic standards to develop a list of approved applicants. In recognition of the professional role of the faculty, it was UW policy that faculty constitute a majority of the membership of this committee. After finalizing their list of four or five candidates that they deem the most acceptable applicants, this committee would conclude its work by providing that list to the second committee, the “selection committee.” This committee, which normally consists of several Regents would choose their preferred candidate from that list.

This two-stage process assured that the campus would hire a leader who understood the academic world and had experience and accomplishment in it. It also protected the campus and the public by preventing the Regents from appointing cronies or the favored candidates of wealthy donors. This is particularly important in today’s political environment so dominated by big-money; many universities around the country have already succumbed to establishing donor-driven “policy centers” that leverage university reputations for integrity in research and teaching but are exempt from the peer review process that established those reputations.

No doubt many highly respected business people will apply in response to this new non-academic plan. However, there is no reason to expect those who have been very successful in business to be effective at a job with incentive structures so alien to their managerial experience and values. Not only does the new procedure practically guarantee incompetence at the top of campus leadership, it invites dangerous threats to the integrity of the research and educational work of the institution.

William L. Holahan is Emeritus Professor and former Chair of the Department of Economics at the UW-Milwaukee. Charles O. Kroncke served as Professor and Associate Dean of Business at UW-Madison as well as Dean of the School of Business at UW-Milwaukee and the School of Management at UT-Dallas. From August 2003 to May 2004, they served on, and Holahan chaired, the UW-System Search and Screen Committee during the search for a UWM chancellor.  

Categories: Education, Op-Ed

One thought on “Op Ed: Regents Changing How UW Leaders Hired”

  1. Fred says:

    It feels like Republicans fear knowledge and want to control it.

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