After the UW System’s strong tenure policies were cut back last year in a series of moves from the state Legislature and the Board of Regents, many speculated the changes would soon negatively impact the system’s carefully cultivated faculty and staff.
Data collected by The Daily Cardinal found that of professors contacted, 75 percent who accepted an outside offer to leave UW-Madison in the last academic year cited those changes as playing at least some part in their decision to depart.
“I really didn’t want to go,” said Karma Chávez, who taught for six years in UW-Madison’s Communication Arts and Chican@/Latin@ Studies programs before leaving for a similar position at the University of Texas at Austin. “I loved my job and I loved my community.”
But Chávez—explaining she was upset with the sudden lack of robust tenure protections and frustrated that her administration did not fight harder for her and her colleagues—decided she would accept the job in Texas that had opened up around the same time.
She’s one of 29 faculty members who left the university in 2016 to pursue other academic opportunities. Of those 29, The Daily Cardinal was able to reach 20—and of those 20, 15 said tenure changes played a role in their choice to leave, even if it was a small role.
The uproar over tenure changes began almost two years ago, when Gov. Scott Walker struck protections from state statute in July 2015. And although the regents were quick to draft resolutions that they hoped would put professors at ease, the damage had already been done for faculty who saw their tenure protections go from some of the strongest in the country historically to much more middle-of-the-road.
For many of them, it was also about more than just tenure. They said working within a public higher education system that saw declining state support—including a staggering $250 million cut to the schools in the 2015-’17 biennial budget—was also disheartening.
“The changes to tenure per se played a small role, but what played a larger role was the political climate that they are a part of,” said Noam Lupu, a former political science assistant professor at UW-Madison who now teaches at Vanderbilt University. “The context of budget cuts and political attacks on the university creates uncertainty about the future of UW-Madison.”
That climate did play a role in the spike of outside offers handed to professors at UW-Madison in the last year, according to an interview with Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf last October. More than three-fourths of those who received outside offers chose to stay, Mangelsdorf said, but retention efforts cost the university about $23.6 million.
Those who did leave now teach at campuses across the country, from Yale University to schools within the University of California system. And of the 15 who reported that tenure changes influenced their decision to go, many of them expressed concern not for how their own career at UW-Madison was affected, but instead for how the university will fare in the future.
“The answer [to whether tenure was a factor] is yes,” said Jan Edwards, who now teaches at the University of Maryland. “Not because I thought I was going to lose tenure myself, but because I thought it would make it more difficult to recruit the best junior faculty.”
Peter Coutu contributed to this report.