Are Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature on their way to doing serious harm to the respected University of Wisconsin system?

Let’s review.

Walker, who is expected to soon announce his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has laid out a series of proposals for the system over the next two years, including budget cuts as well as changes to tenure and the governance structure. He calls the package of changes “the Act 10 of higher education,” a reference to a 2011 law that, among other things, slashed the power of public employee unions, cut the take-home pay for many public workers and eliminated tenure for teachers.

The governor proposed slashing $300 million over the next two years from the University of Wisconsin system, which is comprised of 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year campuses. A legislative committee went along with his idea to cut higher education funding, but only by $250 million — not much of a reprieve. It is worth noting that Wisconsin is already spending less on higher education than all of its Midwestern neighbors and, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is one of only six states that have approved or are considering reducing higher education funding for the next fiscal year.

Walker had also sought to create a new “quasi-governmental” body that would run the university system rather than have it under direct state control, but lawmakers nixed that. They are, however, supporting his proposed changes to tenure and the long-successful University of Wisconsin shared governance structure  that critics say could turn the system into a pariah in academia.

Specifically, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee has approved a bill that would move tenure from state statute into the purview of the governing Board of Regents.  University administration would be able to fire or lay off faculty or academic staff not only for financial emergencies and just cause, as it now the case, but also “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” Not only would it be much easier to lay off faculty but administrators would also have control over decisions involving academic programs and curricula that are now accorded to faculty.

While members of the governing Board of Regents have said publicly that they would still “uphold tenure,” faculty say that the law would take precedence over any board policy. On Thursday night, a board panel voted to go along with the proposed tenure change, and it is likely to be approved by the full legislature in June, the Journal Sentinel reported.

The newspaper quoted Tony Evers, a regent and State Superintendent of Public Instruction, saying that if the legislature approves the broad language in the proposed change, “Tenure will be gone as we know it and I think it’s a step backward for our relationship with faculty members.” Just like for K-12 teachers.

A statement Tuesday issued by the Public Representation Organization of the University of Wisconsin Faculty Senate said:

“If such language is passed by the full Wisconsin legislature, it will cripple the UW’s ability to attract and retain quality employees, devalue the educational credentials of future UW graduates, and create new financial challenges for the UW System.”

The University of Wisconsin system has long enjoyed shared governance among faculty, students and administrators, a dynamic that these changes would shatter.  The New York Times wrote in this story:

Yet in academic circles nationwide, there was concern this week that the proposed changes in Wisconsin could bolster the forces pushing universities to operate more like businesses, eliminating departments or courses that do not attract many students or much research money.
“Increasingly, the excuse of financial difficulty has been used as a reason to overpower the faculty, with a lot of people in administration saying we need to be flexible,” said Henry Reichman, vice president of the American Association of University Professors. “If you just took the Wisconsin language on eliminating tenure, and moved it from the statute into board policy, you could argue that there would be no problem. But the shared governance change seems to undermine the whole structure.”

This Journal Sentinel story on the controversy quoted Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, as saying that many politicians don’t understand tenure:

“Tenure is about protecting academic freedom, not a guaranteed job for life. Protecting academic freedom is important to protecting the public interest. … Without academic freedom, the university will be there to serve the interests of whichever political party is in power. The regents are appointed by the governor, and they determine priorities.”

Earlier in the year Walker created a related controversy when he submitted a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the “Wisconsin Idea” and embedded in the state code — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” Walker was recently sued by a nonprofit watchdog group alleging that he is refusing to make public documents relating to the mission change effort.

The fierce debate over Republican plans for higher education in Wisconsin dovetail with changes in K-12 education that the state superintendent said will decimate public schools by refusing to spend more money on public education for the first time in more than 20 years while giving millions of dollars more to expand a private voucher program, slashing higher education funding, and weakening licensing rules for teachers.

Here’s a statement signed by hundreds of top faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison: