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Why the University of Wisconsin's Proposed Layoff Policy is Dangerous

By Dave Vanness

The media (and many of my colleagues) are missing the most significant problem with the Board of Regents' proposed policy on layoff of tenured faculty. That's not surprising - the policy is intentionally murky (the best landscape for hiding loopholes). Simply put, the policy allows UW administration to discontinue programs (and layoff faculty) because other programs may be considered higher priority.

To make the policy sound legitimate, the system defines "educational considerations" (which may be legitimate reasons to close a program) inappropriately to include financial concerns. Most importantly, RPD 20-XX, II B states: "Educational considerations are related in part to regular program review, and reflect a long-range judgment that the educational mission of the institution as a whole will be enhanced by program discontinuance. This includes the reallocation of resources to other programs with higher priority based on educational considerations. Such long-range judgments generally will involve the analysis of financial resources and the needs of the program and any related college or school."

The first sentence in II B is fine - most of it comes straight from AAUP's recommended institutional regulations. The last two sentences are disasters waiting to happen. If the administration decides, for example, that climate science is a lower priority than petroleum engineering, well - it could be "goodbye climate science!" It need not be so obviously political - but do we want to work in a university where we are competing against each other for our own jobs? We're talking "Academic Hunger Games" here, folks. I guess that makes me the tribute from District 99 (Population Health Sciences) - at least Faculty Senate meetings would be more lively.

Another landmine lurks in II D, which includes "current and predicted comparative cost analysis/effectiveness of the program;" in the list of "educational considerations." If program A graduates more majors per dollar spent than program B, then program B could be discontinued and its faculty laid off. What metric will be used to choose? The policy doesn't specify - and doesn't give faculty the responsibility to decide (assuming that using comparative cost-effectiveness is even an appropriate reason to lay off faculty). The administration's charge to the faculty committee could dictate the criteria. After all, Act 55 says faculty no longer have primary responsibility for deciding such matters - just the primary responsibility to advise the chancellor.

Many still believe the oft-repeated falsehood that Wisconsin Act 55 simply moved UW System tenure policy from state statute to Regent policy - just like our peers. It is true that some of the draft policy language was taken from other large state universities, including the University of Michigan. But the University of Michigan notes directly in the text of its policy that it has never laid off faculty as a result of program discontinuance; its policy does not contain the dangerous provision for "reallocation of resources to other programs with higher priority." That language was added by the administration without the approval of the Tenure Policy Task Force. Faculty Representatives to the Board of Regents, together with all faculty members of the Tenure Policy Task Force, have unanimously asked the Regents for amendments to remove it.

The only acceptable conditions for faculty layoff are either a true institution-wide financial emergency or that a program should be discontinued for bona fide educational considerations, as determined by the faculty (who, after all are supposed to have primary responsibility for curriculum and research). Full stop. The Board of Regents could go a long way toward restoring the reputation of the UW System by loudly and clearly proclaiming this basic professional standard.