by Mary Ellen Flannery
Gov. Scott Walker’s move to eliminate tenure at the University of Wisconsin (UW), one of the world’s finest universities, strikes at the heart of the excellent education delivered to Wisconsin students in its public university classrooms and laboratories.
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Often misunderstood, tenure is not a job for life — but it is a guarantee that faculty and other researchers can pursue discovery or innovation, or inspire inquiry and debate, without fear of political retribution. “Tenure is designed to protect the integrity of the academic enterprise, and this legislation attacks that at its core,” said Mark F. Smith, NEA’s senior policy analyst for higher education. “The ultimate victims will be Wisconsin students, who won’t get the quality education that they deserve.”
The legislation proposed by Walker, a likely Republican candidate for the White House in 2016, would strip tenure from Wisconsin state statute, and leave it up to the State Board of Regents to set its own standards for firing faculty, “when such action is deemed necessary due to… program discontinuance, curtailment or redirection,” whatever that means. Of course, 16 of the 18 Regents are appointed by Walker, including Mike Grebe, the son of Michael Grebe, the CEO of the right-wing Bradley Foundation and Walker’s former campaign chair.
The legislation also seeks to erode faculty’s shared governance rights — and it comes on top of a proposed state budget that would cut $300 million from public higher education. That cut is so massive that UW-Madison could do away with schools of nursing, law, business, pharmacy and veterinary medicine — and still need to find more ways to trim costs. (And while it is true Wisconsin faces a $650 million shortfall in its budget, it’s also a fact that Walker and his supporters created that shortfall with $2 billion in tax cuts.)
It’s all part of Walker’s continued war on higher education, which he simply “doesn’t see value in,” according to NEA Director Britt Hall, an instructor at Wisconsin’s Waukesha County Technical College.
“Rubber-stamping (these proposals) would set the state university on a course that Wisconsinites could regret for decades to come,” warned The New York Times editorial pages this week. “If this proposal becomes law, it will damage the university, perhaps irreparably.”
The consequences of Walker’s ways
“I feel like I am witnessing the death of a really close friend,” said UW-Madison professor David Vanness, who recently started a petition asking the state board of regents to respect tenure.
Already world-respected faculty are leaving Wisconsin for institutions where they see the potential for more support, said Vanness — and more will certainly follow if the state Legislature follows Walker’s cues, he said. “It has the potential to fundamentally alter, in the long term, what is studied here at our university. People are not going to want to come here, at all!”
In a university without tenure, what happens to politically inconvenient research? It’s discouragingly easy to predict how it would be suppressed by politically appointed regents. Research around climate change or environmental science would be an obvious objective, but basically anything that anybody has a financial stake in could be targeted. “Any interesting, groundbreaking research has a winner and loser, and it creates an incentive for parties to steer research,” said Vanness, a health economist.
Take, for example, Vanness’ research, which assesses the effectiveness of various medical treatments. If his work exposes the ineffectiveness of a treatment, then the medical manufacturer of that treatment may very well seek to “get that information washed away,” said Vanness.
Faculty as Hired Hands
Of course, many, many faculty in the U.S. work without tenure — possibly as many as 80 percent, according to some estimates. In the increasingly corporatized world of higher education, students are “customers,” education a “product,” and faculty simply hired hands with no job security and very few rights. But this system is counter to a productive higher education.
“Think about the stifling of the debate over climate change, with states such as Florida and — surprise! — Wisconsin barring scientists from discussing actual science. Or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, research on the economy, sexual health, drugs and the ‘war on terrorism.’ The relevance of tenure, shared (as opposed to corporate-bought) governance and academic freedom has never been greater,” wrote Mark Levine in Al-Jazeera America recently.
Moreover, everything we know about the faculty-student relationship suggests that a professor is as important to student achievement in her classroom as a K12 teacher is in her classroom. “Faculty matter,” assert scholars Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey in this recent NEA Thought & Action article. But frequently the conditions of contingent academic labor — the lack of mentoring responsibilities, of access to libraries and of professional development, etc. — do nothing but undermine the kind of frequent and substantive faculty-student contact that study after study shows underpins learning.
With those students in mind, faculty at the University of Wisconsin haven’t given up. This is not yet a done deal — the state Legislature must approve the legislation — and Wisconsites are warming up to fight. Nearly 4,000 people have signed Vanness’ petition in less than week.
Faculty certainly aren’t “done and out,” he said.