• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


After Wisconsin

This crisis will resolve one way or another, but larger issues remain.

June 10, 2015

In previous thoughts about what’s going on in Wisconsin, there were some implicit arguments that I thought were apparent that – judging from some comments and communications – aren’t.

The fault in this case is mine, so I want to make the implicit, explicit.

The erosion, or worse, destruction of tenure is very bad news for contingent faculty[1].

The forces that seek to erode tenure are the exact same ones that are the root causes of the adjunctification of the professorate, shrinking public support of higher education and the increasing influence of corporate and political interests in governing the public sphere.

Regardless of what happens[2] in Wisconsin, these issues aren’t going away. Indeed, as evidenced by the adjunctification of faculty, they’ve already been with us for many years.

Apparently, it takes crises like Wisconsin’s to make us pay attention.

Since many of us are presently paying attention, I’m hoping we can take this opportunity to broaden the discussion a bit.

I think the professorate is perhaps reluctant to see itself as labor, but these events make it clear that we are indeed workers like any other (contingent know this well as we are consistently reminded that we are fungible), and as such, we need to examine our work as part of the larger systems in which we operate.

All of labor is in an age of percarity. I believe this is primarily due to a general acceptance – even against most of our own self-interest - that when it comes to achieving collective success, our best bet is to put our faith in the values of “business” and “markets” which project a primary value of “competition.”

This has been especially true in education.

President Obama’s own K-12 educational policy is a “race.” Charter schools are supposed to “innovate” and “compete” in search of “excellence.”

I like competition very much where it is a useful tool to give rise to excellence. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are much more engaging than the NHL all-star game.

But how does competition make sense when schools are tasked with trying to educate every student, when indeed, no one can be left behind? The distorting effects of this framework have become apparent, as we have precious little to show for 30-plus years of reform, save stressed-out students, demoralized teachers, and increasingly angry parents.

Billions of dollars a year of public money is funneled away from classrooms and towards consultants and testing corporations in pursuit of nebulous and even dubious “results.”  

The explicit argument for removing tenure from the Wisconsin state statutes and including a provision that allows for faculty removal for budgetary reasons is business-related. Its champions say that changes will allow the administration to be “nimble” and responsive to student and marketplace “demand.”

MOOCs and adaptive algorithmic learning are justified as experiments in “scale” and “efficiency,” assuming – without any discussion - that these are actually worthwhile goals.

The adjunct crisis is often framed as an issue of  “supply and demand,” a framework readily accepted by many tenured faculty themselves, except that it is entirely artificial, created by a long, steady, and ultimately arbitrary redefinition of some of the work of the university as contingent and somehow not worthy of security.

I believe that for a generation or more, we have embraced a kind of trickle down theory of institutional success. If we compete, and succeed in that competition, maybe we will thrive.

The only academic ground on which to compete is prestige, and so we get the rise of the superprofessor, a highly paid symbol with little (if any) contact with students. Public R1 universities strive to be Harvard or Stanford. R2’s aim to be R1’s.

We tout our U.S. News & World Report rankings, despite near universal belief that they are effectively meaningless as an assessment of the actual quality of education.

By the metrics of prestige, places like the University of Wisconsin should be showered with manna by their grateful citizens, and yet all the chase for prestige has gotten is a demand that more and more of the university’s money come from private, primarily corporate, sources.

Louisiana and Arizona are on their way to zeroing out the public contributions to higher education.

Surveying what we have wrought, I can’t help but believe that competition is not a particularly effective way of managing public higher education.

This is why I cringe whenever I read that without tenure, “we will lose the best and brightest” argument. This explicitly accepts a narrative of scarcity and competition, as opposed to one focused on more appropriate educational values.  

This is not an argument for tenure, but an argument to reward the best and the brightest, something that clever administrators can easily figure out to do, and indeed, have done for decades (i.e., superprofessors). It is an argument based on leverage, the businessman’s tool.

But what does leverage mean in an educational setting[3]?

Fighting the battle on that ground means we’ve already lost. Why do only the best and brightest deserve security?

That security has not trickled down. In fact, it’s been the opposite, an arms race.

I’ve long believed, but have been somewhat hesitant to admit (even to myself) that escaping the trap we’ve created for ourselves requires a reckoning.

Part of that reckoning is to consider the questions of tenure and justice that Kelly J. Baker raises in her thought-provoking and important recent essay, “‘It’s gonna be forever or it’s gonna go down in flames’: Tenure and (In)justice.

Baker reveals an obvious truth, that the academy must examine its own culpability in these events, that tenure more often than not has made the already secure only more secure, and that it has been used as a rationale to separate too many faculty from the work of teaching.

Baker convinces me that those of us who work inside the system need to examine our relationships to the system, and our eyes should be oriented towards justice.

As we look outward, we should also be building a narrative that explains the value of access to education to the larger public, so we can articulate the resources necessary to fulfill that mission. We need to convince them that we are effective stewards of that support.

We have to be prepared to admit the ways in which we haven’t been up to that task.

We have to be prepared to accept that one of the reasons so much of the citizenry is not inclined to support public higher education is that too many people exit college without feeling like they had a meaningful academic experience.

Affecting change may require some groups within the academy to give up some their privilege[4].

This may be the only way out, the only way to preserve a system of tenure and security that holds any meaning.

As Baker argues, “… if tenure exists as a system bolstered and supported by teaching labor of the non-tenure track, I can’t defend or support it. Exploited laborers teaching the bulk of classes in the modern university is a problem. A small class of people reap tenure’s benefits while others struggle to eek out a living wage. If this is the only way tenure can exist in Higher Ed, then we need to dismantle it and build something new.”

We must reject precarity inside our institutions if we’re going to make an argument against it in the world beyond.

I believe tenure still can be reclaimed. The passion aroused by the events in Wisconsin demonstrates that such things still matter.

What happens after Wisconsin will tell us exactly how much, and to whom.


[1] While I more than empathize with my fellow contingent faculty who have been relentlessly splattered with more than their share of the budgetary shit as it rolls downhill after largely being deflected by tenured faculty, we should take no pleasure in tenured faculty feeling our pain, because the end of tenure is the nuclear winter from which we shall never rebuild. All that will be left for the work of the university is the shuffling zombie phase.

[2] Guessing from the sidelines, based on the statements of UW System President Ray Cross and Chancellor Rebecca Blank, I think the most likely scenario is the crafting of a series of vague and byzantine policies larded with abstractions securing (or not), some of the faculty rights we associate with tenure, but they will be so convoluted as to effectively be a Rorschach test, their meaning in the eye of the interpreter. Any time they are invoked there will be an inevitable dispute over how the policies are applied. The conservatives who erroneously believe that removing tenure from state statute frees them to remake the university into a nimble, business-serving efficiency machine will instead find themselves mired in lawsuit after lawsuit.

[3] Relying on leverage in educational settings has demonstrably bad effects. Many tenured faculty are familiar with the need to secure a competing offer from another institution in order to merit a raise from their home college or university, even though they have no interest in leaving, and when they turn down that outside offer after securing their raise, leave the other institution with an expensive search for which that particular person was never a candidate. A waste of time and money all around, and wholly unnecessary.

[4] I’m looking at you, once again, Arizona State English Department tenure-track faculty. I’m begging at least one of you to do right by your contingent faculty.




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