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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is proposing changes that would weaken tenure protections in the state’s system of public universities. And faculty members are naturally outraged.

The faculty of the University of Wisconsin enjoys an unusual perk in the landscape of American higher education: their tenure is protected under state law. Currently, those with tenure may only be fired for just cause or in cases of financial exigency. According to the New York Times, a new proposal from Governor Walker seeks to remove tenure protections from statutes, allowing instead the university’s Board of Regents to set tenure policies.

Defenders of the proposal say that the normal practice in higher education is for governing boards (rather than state legislatures) to establish tenure policies. Critics say that the governor, who defeated public sector unions in a contentious fight in 2011, is on a crusade to undermine protections for state workers.

What is the significance of this news for boards of theological schools?

According to the Association of Theological Schools, more than a third of member schools have no tenured or tenure-track faculty. And even at the schools that do have tenure, protections for tenured faculty are less robust than they typically are in public institutions -- for example, a professor might be dismissed for refusing to sign the institution's statement of faith. If the proposed legislation in Wisconsin is passed, faculty at the University of Wisconsin will continue to enjoy more job security than a professor at the average theological school -- especially if Wisconsin’s Board of Regents adopts a tenure policy in line with the policies at other state university systems.

But there are nevertheless two takeaways:

  1. Monkeying with tenure is tricky. Removing a protection that has been long enjoyed, and is even considered a basic right of faculty members, can be demoralizing. In the Spring 2012 issue of In Trust magazine, we shared the story of Winebrenner Theological Seminary’s decision to eliminate tenure, and the impact that decision had on the institution. Within a few years of eliminating of tenure, Winebrenner's previously tenured faculty all departed, through resignation, retirement, or other means. Although the president was glad that the board made the hard decision to move from tenure to rolling contracts, that change came at a cost.
  2. Tenure is no longer a foregone conclusion. In today’s disruptive higher education environment, tenure can seem like an impossible luxury, especially to board members who hail from the business world. Even within the large University of Wisconsin system, which educates more than twice as many students as all theological schools combined,* leaders question whether such a program is still relevant. Boards and administration need the flexibility to change programs to meet the needs of a shifting student body, and they argue that tenure can be antithetical to flexibility.

Striking a balance is the very hard job of the board. It’s true that theological schools are currently enjoying a buyer’s market when it comes to faculty — there are many more available Ph.D.'s than there are positions in higher education — but not many boards want to find merely the cheapest teacher. Ideal faculty members are teachers, mentors, and colleagues. They share the school’s theology and their commitment to spiritual and human formation.

Can a school honor these faculty members and support them without granting tenure? Yes, of course. But striking a balance between program flexibility and commitment to faculty is challenging work. In times of change, it’s harder than ever.

For additional coverage of this story, see the Inside Higher Ed articles “Losing Hope in Wisconsin" and “Why Wisconsin Matters to You.”

*ATS member schools enroll approximately 74,500 students and employ more than 7,200 faculty and administrators. Source: ATS. The University of Wisconsin system includes 13 four-year universities with 180,000 students and more than 39,000 faculty and staff. Source: The University of Wisconsin.

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