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In Wisconsin, "tenure" has become a contentious word.
In March, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents made it easier for tenured professors to lose their jobs. The move spawned outrage among faculty members and put lawmakers who supported the changes on the defensive.
While some faculty members dubbed the new policy "#FakeTenure," Gov. Scott Walker framed the changes as modest and necessary tweaks to give the system more flexibility to deal with tight budgets and changing student needs.
On May 16, 2016, in an interview with conservative radio host Charlie Sykes on WTMJ-AM, Walker described recent no-confidence votes by faculty members aimed at the UW Regents and System President Ray Cross as overreactions.
People were upset, Walker said, because the Regents "had the audacity to put just a slight restraint on this ‘jobs-for-life’ tenure program that they have at the University of Wisconsin System."
It’s not an uncommon refrain. Supporters of university reform frequently characterize tenure as a "job-for-life" guarantee, a concept meant to sound absurd to workers outside of academia.
While the concept of tenure dates to the Middle Ages, tenure as we know it was defined in 1940 and quickly became the widespread practice at colleges and universities. It was created to bolster academic freedom and to protect professors from being fired for expressing unpopular views or pursuing research considered controversial.
But what about Walker’s claim?
When it comes to the old UW tenure system, is he right about "jobs for life"?
How the program worked
As evidence that UW faculty members had "jobs for life" under the former policy, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson pointed to the Board of Regents’ policy document on tenure. The statement defines tenure as an appointment of a faculty member "for an unlimited period."
Evenson noted Merriam Webster defines "unlimited" as "not limited in number or amount" and added: "The UW System’s use of ‘unlimited’ in this case is obviously in reference to the unlimited period under which one is employed under a tenure appointment."
Evenson also cited an opinion piece for the website Right Wisconsin written by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester. That piece said records obtained by Vos’ office from the UW System showed only six tenured faculty members were fired for just cause in the last 20 years.
The UW System has 4,560 tenured faculty members, according to the article.
That makes the odds of being let go very low — but not non-existent.
Next, we asked a UW System spokesman about the system’s policies.
Spokesman Alex Hummel acknowledged there have been few cases of faculty members being dismissed after attaining tenure, but said the word "unlimited" does not signify eternity. Rather, he said, it recognizes the lack of a specified limit.
He also said the six-in-20-years statistic doesn’t account for situations in which faculty members, when faced with being fired, chose to resign instead. He didn’t have data on how many times this happened in the same time period.
We also checked with the American Association of University Professors, which advised UW on its changes and whose model policies form the basis of tenure at institutions around the country.
A spokeswoman said the UW System’s original policy aligned with the group’s model procedures, which say tenured appointments can be terminated for three reasons: just cause, such as misconduct; program discontinuations due to educational considerations; or financial emergencies that threaten the university’s existence.
The changes in UW’s tenure policies expanded the criteria decision-makers use to determine if a program should be discontinued.
In the past, if a program was discontinued, faculty members would have the option to be placed in another department. Under the new policy, decision-makers can consider — among other factors — if the program’s work is duplicated in another department, if student demand for the program has decreased or if the program is not cost-effective for the institution. In such cases, no new job is guaranteed and the decision is ultimately left to chancellors.
Even before the change in Wisconsin, "faculty members with tenure could lose their jobs in case of financial exigency," Laura Markwardt, a spokeswoman for the group, said in email. "They could also be terminated for cause."
Thus, the old policy had grounds for dismissal, undermining Walker’s "jobs for life" claim. The fact it was rarely used does not mean it was not there.
But we think the underlying point Walker was making is a valid one. As a practical matter, the extremely rare usage of the provisions can, in effect, make it a job for life.
Walker described the UW System’s original policy as a "‘jobs-for-life’ tenure program."
He left out the fact that even before the Board of Regents broadened the grounds for dismissal of tenured faculty members, individuals could be dismissed under several circumstances, such as misconduct and financial difficulties that threaten the university’s existence.
But because dismissals under that policy were extremely rare, being granted tenure effectively promised someone a job for life.
Our definition of Half True is "the statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context." That fits here.
Governor Scott Walker’s WTMJ interview on the Charlie Sykes show, May 16, 2016
Email exchange with Tom Evenson, spokesman for Governor Scott Walker, May 25-27, 2016
Email exchange with Alex Hummel, UW System senior vice president of communication, May 25- June 1, 2016
Email exchange with Laura Markwardt, American Association of University Professor spokeswoman, May 25-26, 2016
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, UW-Milwaukee faculty unanimously backs protest vote, May 10, 2016
Gov. Scott Walker press release, May 10, 2016
AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, Fundamental Freedom or Fringe Benefit? Rice University and the Administrative History of Tenure, 1935–1963
Board of Regents tenure policy document, adopted March 10, 2016
Gov. Scott Walker radio address, Making college more affordable and accessible, May 12, 2016
Right Wisconsin, Opinion: Letting go of the status quo, May 26, 2016
Board of Regents agenda and supporting meeting materials, March 2016
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