• 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.


Oh, Wisconsin

The narrative of public higher education needs changing.

June 7, 2015

Until I was sixteen-years-old,  I thought the University of Wisconsin – Madison = “college.”

My parents (Class of ’62), would drag me from suburban Chicago for football weekends where I would freeze my tuchus off at Camp Randall, all the way through the famous “5th Quarter” with the marching band, often the highlight during those bleak, pre Barry Alvarez years. I remember standing in the upper deck and feeling it shake underneath my feet as the band played the modified “Budweiser” song. When you say Wisconsin…

What you say, when you say “Wisconsin” is in the process of radical change. The current legislative proposal to remove tenure from state statute and increase the power of the Board of Regents in making personnel and organizational decisions is actually a fallback position from the original, even more radical plan of ending the “Wisconsin Idea,” a principle that has served the people of the state remarkably well for several generations.

In many ways, the Wisconsin system, with its flagship campus and satellite schools sprinkled throughout the state, has been the model other states wish to emulate in terms of providing access to relatively low-cost education for all of its citizens.

But the alterations to shared governance and $250 million dollar budget cuts threaten to end this.

I can’t help but note the irony of these moves coming from a conservative governor and legislature. Rep. John Nygren (R), the co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee that approved these changes told the Wall Street Journal, “If you’re going to empower the system and administration, you need to give them the tools to do that.”

That’s a republican legislator arguing for more centralized bureaucracy and restrictions on freedom and choice, folks. We’ve entered a bizarro world where conservatives now stand athwart history and say, “Speed up!”

As a dispositional conservative, it troubles me every time we seek to remake or undo institutions that have served so many, so well, for so long. Centralizing power in a body with a supermajority appointed by the governor seems exceedingly foolhardy, as the university system will inevitably be yanked to and fro as the office changes hands.

The attacks are transparently ideological, political power plays cloaked in the language of populism, a repeat of Governor Walker’s neutering of the K-12 teachers’ unions in the state.

And it’s working. Public comments on what’s happening show a prevailing view of college professors as “elitists” who enjoy “jobs for life.” It is the “jobs for life” charge that seems most potent because obviously no one deserves a job for life, even though we used to live in a culture where many people worked for the same employer for their entire careers, retiring with pensions and security.

While most of these comments betray an ignorance as to the reality of what it means to be tenured, it is interesting that an argument that everyone should experience precarious employment is more powerful than the counter that more people should have security.

Changes to tenure, increased costs to students, narrowed curricular paths and consultant speak about “right-sizing” programs and making degrees “responsive” to industry demands, are all part of an increasing, perhaps now dominant viewpoint that access to higher education is a private, rather than public good.

I have to ask who is benefiting from these radical changes. It is not students who are paying more than ever, not faculty, not the schools themselves, and definitely not the larger public.

Education is now about providing “resources” for business, rather than opportunity for individuals.

For these reasons, I support the resistance to these changes. Tenure is a necessary institution for the proper functioning and governance of colleges and universities.

I’d like to see us win this fight by moving majority sentiment over to our side. We need to reverse the direction of this narrative.

I don’t think it’s going particularly well.

I think it is a mistake to paint the tenured faculty at Wisconsin, or the other schools where something similar is inevitable, as victims who will be unable to continue to do their work without the protections of tenure.

For one, how do you prove that tenure is necessary when a majority of your colleagues have been working without it?

I read that tenure protects the right for college faculty to speak freely, but where has that free speaking been during the decades-long process of adjunctification of their own profession[1]?

When tenure was allowed to become a job perk, reserved for the few at the expense of the many, the argument that it’s fundamental pre-requisite to do the work of the university was lost[2].

The counter-narrative that other jobs don’t come with tenure is more than persuasive with the general public. We are in an age of precarity, and for some reason, people have come to believe that this is the natural, even desirable state of things.

I also believe arguing that the University of Wisconsin – Madison will lose “top-tier” faculty (as articulated in a New York Times editorial) is short-sighted. To many, this is a feature, not a bug, as those who come in and take the open positions will likely be pre-compliant, as expressed by a commenter on IHE’s article regarding the changes, “Sure, Scott Walker is an idiot, but I’d suck it up and keep my head down if I could work at UW…”

I promise you, this viewpoint is widespread among contingent faculty. If they are not allies in this fight, I don’t know who could be.

It also plays into the narrative that higher education is a marketplace that should primarily run on competition, rather than an ecosystem of interdependent parts that work cooperatively[3] with tenure being one of the tools that allows these parts to balance each other out.

The urge to paint Gov. Walker as attacking higher education because he didn’t graduate from college should be resisted as well, mostly because it’s dumb, and makes the charge of professorial “elitism” stick. The man is successful by any standard. Who cares if he doesn’t have a college degree?

Any mention of the Koch brothers as puppetmasters also should be dropped. When the battle is primarily ideological and tribal, we are on the losing ground. Gov. Walker has already proved his winning hand in that battle with his victory in the recall election.

Gov. Walker and the republican legislators are successfully selling a story that the universities are receiving resources they don’t “deserve” because everyone has to tighten their belts, and besides, they’re a bunch of liberal elitists who look down their noses from the Ivory Tower that they get to inhabit for life.

That story needs to change.

The discussion should be about the broader constituency public higher education serves, students and the public. Wisconsin, with its Wisconsin Idea, is better positioned to change this narrative than just about any other university system.

Talk about how public education has served generations of citizens well, and that one of the reasons it has been doing less well as of late, is because of the kinds of policies that the Wisconsin legislature wishes to enact where “business” interests and political bureaucracy interferes with the ability to do the work. Ask people if it makes sense to have politicians and high placed administrators, rather than educators, decide what is effective when it comes to education.

Tell stories of students whose lives have been changed by the opportunities your institutions provide. Better yet, ask those students to tell their stories themselves.

And most importantly, if tenure is worth preserving, use it, not to protect one’s own position of privilege, but to put forward the academic values we claim are important.


[1] As an example, I will note for the nth time the silence of Arizona State’s tenured English faculty, and their complicity in putting the screws to their contingent instructors at the behest of their administration. They are cowards, standing idly by as their own work be devalued in front of their eyes. When the legislature comes for them and the consultants “right-size” the ASU graduate program, unlike with what’s happening in Wisconsin, I will cheer.

[2] Similarly, claiming that college faculty deserve tenure because of the rigorous requirements to achieve it will receive little sympathy. Other professions requiring years of qualification and expertise don’t receive tenure.

[3] The emphasis on what is happening at the Madison campus is also a little disheartening. A significant majority of students in the U. of Wisconsin system are at other campuses.



I sometimes work these things out on Twitter before writing them up here.



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