Education News

WI Gov Walker continues assault on higher education, attacks tenure

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.

Higher-Ed-we-teach-the-99Already 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.

4 responses to “WI Gov Walker continues assault on higher education, attacks tenure

  1. I hate Gov. Walker with a passion!!!
    I hope that pinko-Nazi prick succumbs to a heart attack and croaks!!

  2. All we have to do is look to Arizona to see what the results will be if Walker is allowed to continue on his path.

    Pay and working conditions will be so bad that schools will have difficulty attracting quality and retaining excellence. Academic achievement will go down.

    Anyone who compares public employee unions with ISIS doesn’t get it. He has to be stopped.

  3. Well said. Why don’t you get rid of that loser governor Scott Walker? Surely Someone from the Univ. of Wisconsin can run for governor??? Your state couldn’t do any worse.

  4. This proposed bill will provide students exactly what they DON’T need–unqualified persons teaching them. Much as the corporate world seeks the BEST; so too does the academic world–especially at the universities. When the top businesses hire the best graduates and managers, they get the best results. When universities hire the best faculty, students and the rest of the world gain with cutting edge technology, medical advances, progressive educational strategies,and political knowledge. When tenure goes out the window, so too does the absolutely best researchers, teachers, and even administrators at those institutions–no matter how small. Demolishing tenure WILL ruin these universities. No recent graduate from a doctoral program would choose to teach in an institution that can’t guarantee safe travels via tenure. Wisconsin universities will lose their credibility and some of the best professors will leave and go where their professional lives are protected. See the book WHY AMERICA’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE THE BEST PLACE FOR KIDS: REALITY VS. NEGATIVE PERCEPTIONS for details about the significance of tenure.

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