Tenure or Bust

Nearly 90 percent of professors at U of Wisconsin System would consider leaving state if tenure were abolished, and majority say it would limit scholarly inquiry, according the results of controversial survey.

December 17, 2015
Wisconsin State Capitol

Faculty members in the University of Wisconsin System objected in droves this fall to a survey of their views on tenure, which some said was poorly designed and funded by a think tank that’s taken conservative stances on various state issues. But if the survey was ever any attempt at gathering data to convince Wisconsinites to further weaken tenure in the state -- as some critics have alleged, and which the think tank denies -- it backfired. According to raw data presented in Madison Wednesday, the overwhelming majority of those tenured or tenure-track faculty members surveyed said that if tenure were replaced with renewable contracts, they’d considering leaving Wisconsin for colleges and universities elsewhere.

“I think the jaw-dropping finding is that 89 percent of respondents said they’d consider leaving the state,” said David Vanness, an associate professor of health population science who vocally opposed the survey and the Wisconsin Legislature’s decision earlier this year to eliminate tenure protections from state law (though they’re being written into a system policy, still in draft form). “Regardless of the problems with this survey, that is a huge percentage. It’s got to give some pause.”

Both faculty members who questioned the survey and the researcher who designed it, William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago, said the data must be considered the opinions of the 1,378 professors who voluntarily completed it -- not a representative sampling of views. That’s because of an arguably low response rate of about 22 percent, along with methodological and other concerns. For example, professors said the survey came directly from Howell and didn’t, in their view, sufficiently disclose that it was funded by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Additionally, questions on how much of a pay increase professors would need to give up tenure assumed that they’d be willing to ever make such a trade (many said they wouldn’t). Questions about anonymity of data surrounded the survey, too, leading Chicago’s institutional review board to review respondents’ complaints and recommend additional safeguards.

Despite their significant flaws, the data provide unique insight into professors’ views on tenure -- a relatively understudied topic even if conventional wisdom assumes faculty members value tenure highly.

In separate questions, 62 percent of respondents said they’d considering leaving the university system for other colleges in the state, and 52 percent said they’d consider leaving academe altogether.

Other significant findings include that eliminating tenure would, in professors' opinions, stifle scholarly inquiry and academic freedom. Some 56 percent of respondents over all said they’d be less likely to pursue ambitious research projects, and the rate was slightly higher among faculty members at the top research institution, Madison (61 percent). Seventy-nine percent of respondents over all said they’d be less likely to pursue controversial research subjects, and 57 percent said they’d be less likely to broach controversial topics in the classroom.

The data also suggest that eliminating tenure in favor of renewable contracts wouldn’t increase research productivity, or eliminate departmental “dead weight,” as some critics of tenure claim. Some 64 percent of professors surveyed said their productivity would stay the same, and 27 said it would decrease. Just 8 percent said it would increase under a new system.

Respondents -- all of whom had tenure or were on the tenure track -- also opposed eliminating tenure even if they were to retain tenure themselves. Sixty-five percent over all and 70 percent of top research faculty said they’d strongly oppose changes affecting only future faculty members. Relatedly, 86 percent of respondents said recruiting new faculty members with “relaxed” tenure protections but increased pay would be much more or somewhat more challenging.

Faculty members generally think tenure works at their institutions, according to the data. Some 83 percent of respondents said their current departmental standards for achieving tenure were “about right.” Fifty-two percent said tenure is most of the time a good indication of the quality of a tenure holder’s instruction in the classroom, as well as his or her research achievements.

Posttenure review doesn’t seem to work quite as well, at least as a process. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of respondents said posttenure review in their departments was a “pro forma exercise,” although just a slightly smaller percentage -- 49 percent -- said it was a “valuable check.”

Vanness, president of Madison’s American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter, said that even though the findings were largely in step with how faculty members say they feel about tenure, it’s impossible to consider them valid. Particularly problematic were the questions on trading tenure for increased pay, he said.

“When I saw those, I just clicked the ‘X’” closing the survey window on his computer before he finished it back in September, he said. “I objected to the premise.” (For the record, the median pay increase professors over all would accept for a five-year contract in return for giving up tenure was 40 percent, and the mean was 295 percent. For 10-year contracts the median was 25 percent and the mean was 336 percent, and for 20-year contracts the median was 10 percent and the mean was 21 percent.)

He said as much to Howell, who presented the findings to faculty members in Madison Wednesday. A copy of his presentation is available here, and raw data are available here. By all accounts, the meeting presentation was tense, but Vanness said he got the impression that Howell “didn’t come in with bad intent, it was just not an A-plus survey design” -- on a very touchy subject.

Howell said via email that he wanted “to share these findings in order to be completely transparent about what I did and what I found. I also wanted to use these events as an opportunity to make clear what these findings do and do not suggest about faulty opinions on tenure.”

Regarding the validity of his findings, Howell said that although his response rate “was higher than many surveys, this survey was conducted in a highly political environment and, for a whole host of reasons, we should not characterize its results as representing anything other than the opinions of the individuals who responded. The survey does not speak for all [system] tenured and tenure-track faculty.”

Nevertheless, he added, some of the findings are instructive, “particularly considering how little information we have about what faculty think about this important issue.” Howell said he was struck by the “depth of faculty concerns about how a move toward renewable contracts would curb their speech in the classroom and affect the decisions they make about their research.” And, like Vanness, he said he was surprised that nearly 90 percent of professors said it would make them consider leaving the state.

Michael Olneck, a professor emeritus of educational policy studies and sociology at Madison, said he questioned Howell’s decision to present his findings at all, and that they should be treated as “numbers,” not “results” or “findings,” except in cases where the answer was overwhelmingly in one direction.

“Had this been my own work, I would not have presented these numbers publicly,” he said. “My concern is that others will use his numbers without any caveats about the likely biases and imprecision of estimates in the data.”

Olneck said that’s already happened, in the form of a news release on the data from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which notes the total number of respondents and eligible faculty members over all, but doesn’t note Howell’s acknowledgment of the data as limited.

The news release doesn’t shy away from the pro-tenure findings, and leads with the notion that many faculty members would consider leaving the state if tenure were eliminated. But it does note that 51 percent of respondents said posttenure review was pro forma.

“One of the major concerns here is that the posttenure review process is toothless in far too many places,” Mike Nichols, the institute’s president, said in the release. “Just about everyone I know gets an in-depth performance review -- with expectations and consequences. Hopefully, the [system’s Board of Regents] and chancellors will make sure the same thing starts happening in our universities.”

Nichols also highlights the finding that 36 percent of respondents say tenure “is a good indication of impact on the community, business or economy” most of the time or always.

“Part of the mission of our public universities is to promote economic well-being, to make sure the publicly supported expertise on our campuses is shared with business and industry and the rest of our Wisconsin community. As we’ve pointed out in prior research, this has to emanate from the faculty. Unfortunately, it looks like we have no good way of knowing if most of them are doing that part of their jobs.”

Asked how else the institute was planning to use the data, Nichols told Inside Higher Ed that he hopes the board and others involved in “setting new tenure policies for the system and the campuses take a close look at the research as they determine what’s best for our state.”

The university system is currently updating its posttenure review policy and drafting new tenure protections to replace what was eliminated from state law in a controversial bill over the summer. A posttenure review draft policy being circulated by a task force includes a provision that tenured faculty members who fail at remediation attempts can face formal dismissal proceedings for “cause” within 18 months. That differs slightly but significantly from the “just cause” language previously enshrined in state law (although just cause would still be the standard in dismissal proceedings).

The faculty layoff draft -- the more controversial of the two documents -- says, like former state law, that faculty members may be terminated in the event of financial exigency. But it also adds a new possibility of layoffs for “program discontinuance,” which may be suggested not only by faculty members but by a dean, provost or chancellor.


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