Thoughts on the UW System’s Proposed Layoff Policy

The Journal Sentinel reports this morning that a new policy to “allow tenured and tenure-track faculty to be laid off if academic programs are discontinued for “educational considerations,” including financial or strategic planning reasons tied to “long-term student and market demand and societal needs”” will move one step closer to reality today. This worries me greatly. I of course have skin in the game as a tenure-track faculty member at a UW system school, so feel free to take my opinion with a grain of salt.

The faculty labor market is extremely mobile. Turning the UW system into an island that is comparatively less attractive for faculty members will keep good people away. There is no doubt in my mind that this will negatively impact the quality of the UW system over time. Some have argued that few other professions have employment protections like academia, and that this is a natural correction.   There is legitimacy to that argument. However the issue is not the worth or fairness of tenure, but the simple reality of the labor market. People will make a rational decision to go somewhere where they will not be laid off for reasons unrelated to job performance.

And what about current faculty? I do not think you will see an immediate exodus if these changes are implemented. Nobody dedicates their professional lives to a topic they did not think was incredibly important, so I imagine most faculty do not think their program will be at risk. (Personally, a world without public administration is one I’d rather not live in!). However, the first time a UW system school lays off tenured faculty for “financial or strategic planning reasons” the calculus changes. If it can happen to [said program] it can happen to my program. This is when the system will start losing large numbers of quality people.

It is of course the right of the legislature and the board of regents to make these changes. I agree that universities cannot and should not be frozen in time. As the values of the state change, and the needs of state students change, public institutions need to change. But this proposal is not the answer. It will hurt the quality of the UW system for the simple reasons I laid out.

Academia is a great profession. I am the first to tell anyone that we have it good. I get the privilege of working with diverse and ambitious students, the flexibility to pursue research that I feel is important, and the ability to partner with practitioners in the community and state. But it is not perfect, and I think and hope most faculty members are open to constructive changes. Unfortunately, this proposal is not that.

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