Tenure and Budget at UW-Madison

Sometimes I heard outside comments about UW-Madison that I believe are not quite correct. In this short note I would like to offer my personal opinion on those.


Some think that we don't have tenure anymore, or it has been weakened a lot. I don't think this is true. Up until 2015, tenure protection in the UW system (including UW-Madison) was written into the state statue (that is, state law). This level of tenure protection was rather rare (I don't know of another state university in the US where tenure protection is in the state law, but I haven't searched for this).

Then in 2015, the Wisconsin legislature removed this tenure protection from the state law. It asked the Board of Regents of the UW system to draft a new set of tenure rules. At most other academic places, the Board of Regents indeed creates such tenure rules. So in a sense, yes, tenure protection at UW has been weakened (by being removed from the state law). But this is somewhat misleading, because all that happened is that the Board of Regents is now in charge of writing tenure rules, like at most other US universities.

It is true that when the Board of Regents tried to write a new set of tenure rules, there was a lot of back and forth and some cried foul over certain phrases that can be interpreted as listing some vague reasons for firing professors. But such back and forth is natural when such high-stake things are being crafted. By now the dust has settled, and we seem to have a set of tenure rules similar to those of most other universities in the US.

You can see this blog from the UW-Madison chancellor for more information. To quote from it:

"I view much of the debate around this policy as more symbolic than substantive at UW-Madison. And while symbolism is important, as long as this University is a top-ranked institution we will behave like other top-ranked universities. That means we don't layoff tenured faculty. Period."
"The approved UW-Madison policy is consistent with our peers. This is important in our ability to recruit and retain our top faculty. For those who are concerned, I strongly urge you to read our policy and then read the tenure policy of the University of Michigan or the University of North Carolina so you have a comparison."

To summarize, I would say people (on both sides of this issue) are not stupid. If tenure protection at UW has indeed been weakened to the level of being worse than at other US universities, do you really think we are still here? There would have been an exodus. But no such exodus has happened, even though there was a lot of poaching attempts in the past few years (see the top graph on the right). People continue to join UW-Madison at roughly the same rate as before (see the bottom graph on the right). You can read more here.

Of course, I should note that it is not difficult to find dissenting opinions online, such as this and this. If interested, you can read and judge for yourself.


Some think we got so many budget cuts that we are eating dog food in Wisconsin. Nothing can be further from the truth. This impression most likely came from the big publicity around the $250M cut back in 2015. This cut was for two years (the Wisconsin state budget is biannual). So it was $125M per year, spread over 13 campuses. UW-Madison must cut its budget by $61M per year (from a budget of 2.4 billions), and CS must cut it budget by $240K per year. Is this such a drastic number as the press made it out to be? You can judge for yourself. (I'm not saying budget cut is not a bad thing; of course it does affect UW-Madison's operations, and it can affect some units more than others. What I'm saying is that all numbers should be viewed in perspective.)

Does this mean UW-Madison is now much poorer and so is CS? This is also not true. I'm not privy to UW-Madison's budget situation, so I can't say for sure. But from where I sit, there seems to be money on campus (probably coming in from non-state sources). New buildings coming up left and right, donations coming in. Just in the academic year 2017-2018 a new plan was announced to hire 45 few faculty on the campus, as a part of a cluster hiring initiative (this is 15 per year, for three years, on top of regular hiring). Note that state contribution is only a part of UW-Madison revenue (and a diminishing part at that, currently at 16%, see here).). The university also receives revenues from many other sources (some of which are still growing). UW-Madison is also blessed with two major foundations: the UW Foundation (2.4B endowment as of 2016) and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF, 2.6B endowment as of 2016). Each year these two foundations contribute tens of millions of dollars to UW-Madison. For example, WARF contributed $80.9M to UW-Madison in 2017.

CS at UW-Madison in particular is in a great position funding-wise. We are currently at 34 and soon will be at 38 (in the academic year 2018-2019). We have been authorized to grow to 50, and we can even hire more beyond that (on money that we raise). So hiring up to 60 is completely do-able. The real issue, of course, is not slots, but rather how to hire well in this competitive hiring climate and how to manage the growth of CS. In addition to slots, CS also has many revenue streams and they are growing. Just two years ago, we attracted more than 13M in donation. There are also ongoing efforts to ensure that CS salaries remain competitive nationwide. Because of the sensitive nature of such issues, I will not discuss more, but am happy to talk privately about the salary situation here.