- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 9, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The University of Wisconsin-Madison asked state lawmakers on Tuesday to reconsider proposed changes to job protections for tenured faculty that have come under fire from professors and others who see it as putting academic freedom and their jobs at risk.

But Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who co-sponsored the proposal to eliminate tenure from state law and change the job protection language, said she was not interested in revisiting the issue.

The changes in tenure were added to the state budget by the Joint Finance Committee on May 29. It is subject to approval by the Senate and Assembly, both controlled by Republicans, as well as GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

Since the committee’s vote, UW professors and others have been urging the Legislature to reconsider, in part out of fear that top faculty will be recruited to universities with stronger job protections.

The university’s Board of Regents moved quickly, voting on Friday to adopt a tenure policy with the exact wording of what is to be eliminated from state law. Wisconsin is the only state with tenure protection in law.

But faculty said another change made by the budget committee that broadened the circumstances under which they could be fired was just as problematic. Under current law, tenured faculty members can only be fired for just cause or if there’s a financial emergency. Under the new provisions, the administration could fire them “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

On Tuesday, UW-Madison lobbyist Matt Kussow gave the Legislature proposed changes to that language saying faculty could be fired due to “discontinuance of a program or department for educational reasons.”

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, in a message to the Faculty Senate on Tuesday, said she was pushing for the change to make the wording consistent with standards developed by the American Association of University Professors and policies of peer institutions.

But Harsdorf said under the wording approved by the budget committee, which she sees no reason to revisit, the regents have the power to set whatever policy they want on when tenured faculty face being fired.

“It’s permissive,” she said. “Basically it’s really in the hands of the regents to write the tenure policy.”

Blank, in the message to the Faculty Senate, agreed that the change in when faculty can be laid off isn’t a command or directive.

“It merely authorizes the Board of Regents to lay-off faculty for the stated reasons,” Blank said. “The Regents can decide when and how they want to invoke that authority.”

Blank said she would not make any changes to existing practice at the university’s flagship campus, or accept a tenure policy that is inconsistent with UW-Madison’s peers or that violates accepted standards.

And UW System President Ray Cross, in an email sent to chancellors on Friday, said that work was beginning immediately on drafting policies to prevent layoff decisions that would make tenure meaningless.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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