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Wisconsin Gov. Walker's Next Battle: Tenure

University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.
Mike McGinnis
Getty Images
University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been making national headlines for years taking on public and private sector unions. Now, the possible GOP presidential candidate is going after another group — nearly 5,000 tenured faculty in the 26-campus University of Wisconsin system.

Tenure typically means that a university faculty member who has taught for a number years and passes a review process can't be easily fired. Tenure also translates often into a raise. For 12-month faculty at UW-Madison, the raise is about $8,000.

Wisconsin's public university system has had among the nation's strongest tenure protections. They're in state law. But Walker, a Republican, is trying to expand the number of reasons that faculty can be let go. He and GOP lawmakers here already plan about a 10 percent cut in annual state funding for the university, and they argue that relaxing tenure protections could actually lead to savings. Walker has said it puts private-sector sensibilities into a public university:

"People should be based on performance, they should be based on merit," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said.
Gerry Broome / AP
"People should be based on performance, they should be based on merit," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said.

"People should be based on performance, they should be based on merit and going forward if we have a program like than in any part of state government, it's going to be a good thing."

But a good thing for whom? Julia Azari, a tenured professor of political science at privately-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, thinks that as a potential presidential candidate, Walker is trying to compete with other Republicans for conservatives' attention. Marquette would not be affected by any proposed tenure changes.

"Sticking it to academics and the faculty lounge — people love to talk about the faculty lounge — that makes a good line, but I think a lot of it is really about demonstrating conservative accomplishment credentials," Azari said.

While Azari isn't sure about savings through tenure changes, she says it appears the governor's supporters want a more market-based pay structure.

"You know, 'How can we think about the market in a competitive way to make labor inexpensive?' And, that's a logical response in a way to economic decline and the politics of austerity — and it's proved to be a very effective framework for some constituencies," she said.

Though most classes in Madison are out for the summer, hundreds of UW professors jammed a faculty senate meeting this week, in what could be a last attempt to try to block the tenure change. Before joining a large majority voting to ask state lawmakers to drop the tenure language, medical physics assistant professor Michael Kissick wasn't pulling any punches.

"This is a very aggressive government," Kissick said. "This is not business as usual, and outrage does serve a purpose, because history's going to record what we do and what we say. And, if we just sit around quietly while our rights are getting stripped away from us, history's going to record what saps we are."

It's likely that at some campuses, administrators under pressure to cut costs might even welcome flexibility to lay off higher-paid faculty. But University of Wisconsin leaders, including system President Ray Cross, say tenure is a pillar of higher education.

"No tenured faculty member should be dismissed — ever — without a rigorous process that is that is rationally developed and in concert with standard practices around the country," Cross said.

If tenure change goes through, Cross says, a task force that includes faculty would hammer out a new tenure policy. But control of the policy would be in the hands of a UW Board of Regents, which is currently dominated by Walker's appointees.

Copyright 2021 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit Wisconsin Public Radio.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August, 2018, as Innovation Reporter, covering developments in science, health and business.