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Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, has made national headlines for years taking on public and private sector unions. Now the possible GOP presidential candidate is facing off against another group - nearly 5,000 tenured faculty in the University of Wisconsin system. If he succeeds in pushing through a major change in tenure policy, professors there say the governor risks damaging more than a century of academic excellence. Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.
CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Tenure typically means that a university faculty member who has taught for a number of years and passes a review process can't be easily fired. At UW-Madison, tenure also translates into a raise of about $8,000. Wisconsin's public university system has had among the nation's strongest tenure protections. They're in state law. But Republican governor, Scott Walker, is trying to expand the number of reasons that faculty can be let go. He and GOP lawmakers here already plan about a 10 percent cut in annual state funding for the university, and they argue that relaxing tenure protections could actually lead to savings. Walker says it puts private sector sensibilities into a public university.
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SCOTT WALKER: People should be based on performance. They should be based on merit. And I think, going forward, if we have a program like that in any part of the state government, it's going to be good thing.
QUIRMBACH: But a good thing for whom? Julia Azari is a tenured political science professor at privately-run Marquette University in Milwaukee which would not be affected by any proposed tenure changes. Azari thinks that as a potential presidential candidate, Walker is trying to compete with other Republicans for conservatives' attention.
JULIA AZARI: Sticking it to academics and the faculty lounge - and people love to talk about the faculty lounge - you know, that makes a good line, but I think a lot of it is really about demonstrating conservative accomplishment credentials.
QUIRMBACH: While Professor Azari isn't sure about savings through tenure changes, she says it appears the governor's supporters want a more market-based pay structure.
AZARI: You know, how can we think about the market in a kind of, you know, competitive way to make labor inexpensive? And that's - you know, that's a logical response, in a way, to economic decline and the politics of austerity. And it's proved to be a very active framework with some constituencies.
QUIRMBACH: Though most classes in Madison are out for the summer, hundreds of UW professors jammed a faculty Senate meeting this week in what could be a last attempt to try to block the tenure change. Medical physics assistant professor Michael Kissick wasn't pulling any punches.
MICHAEL KISSICK: This is a very aggressive government. This is not business as usual. An outrage does serve a purpose because history's going to record what we do and what we say. And if we just sit around quietly while our rights are getting stripped away from us, history's going to record what saps we are.
QUIRMBACH: It's likely that administrators under pressure to find more savings might even welcome flexibility to lay off higher paid faculty. But University of Wisconsin leaders, including system president Ray Cross, say tenure is a pillar of higher education.
RAY CROSS: No tenured faculty member should be dismissed ever without a rigorous process that is rationally developed and in concert with standard practices around the country.
QUIRMBACH: But if the tenure change goes through, control of the new policy will be in the hands of a Board of Regents, a Board of Regents that's now dominated by Scott Walker's appointees. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.
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