- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A University of Wisconsin System regents committee overwhelmingly approved policy changes Friday that would allow chancellors to lay off tenured professors if their programs are cut and fire them for poor performance.

The full Board of Regents is expected to consider the policy changes at a meeting next month. Critics contend the revisions would allow chancellors and regents to shrink programs to save money.

Campuses could use the revisions to start cutting liberal arts programs to appease Republicans, who see the system as simply a giant job trainer, according to David Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences at UW-Madison and president of the Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

“(The policy changes) are carefully crafted to look good in some places and hide land mines in others,” Vanness said.

Tenure status typically means a faculty member can be fired only for just cause or in a financial emergency. Such protections had been part of state law for decades before Republican legislators stripped them out of the statutes in the 2015-17 state budget, giving the regents the ability to redefine the protections. The board immediately adopted the provisions that had been in statute but set up a task force to consider possible changes to post-tenure reviews and layoff protections.

Under the changes, tenured faculty could still be laid off and programs downsized in financial emergencies as defined by chancellors and the regents. They also could lose their jobs if their programs are discontinued.

Tenured faculty also would be subject to a performance review at least once every five years. If a faculty member receives a poor evaluation and fails to improve over 18 months, he or she could be fired. The education committee amended that provision to give the faculty member three semesters to improve.

The task force’s chairman, Regent John Robert Behling, told the education committee that the changes are fair. He warned that if the regents don’t inject more accountability into tenure, legislators could continue to cut university funding. The state budget slashed the system by $250 million.

“Without that accountability,” Behling said, “our budget prospects will not improve.”

Vanness told reporters that he believes chancellors could choose to cut programs for financial rather than educational reasons and might shrink programs rather than discontinue them under the financial emergency language.

Regents could make moves to eliminate social science, art and humanities courses to bring the system more in line with Republican wishes to refocus on a job training mission, he said, pointing to Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal last year to replace the system’s public service mission statement with the charge of meeting the state’s workforce needs. Walker ultimately abandoned the plan, calling it a drafting error.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1.

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