What happens in Wisconsin will not stay in Wisconsin. Lawmakers here are moving quickly to hollow out the definition of tenure and strip away due process rights for faculty members and academic staff. For legislators in other states who want to dismantle public higher education, they might look here to find new plays for their playbooks.
It is not uncommon for legislators to threaten tenure or criticize public education -- many do it for sport. But what’s unique in Wisconsin is that the proposed tenure changes are not coming from a fringe coalition: they are coming from the Joint Finance Committee, the most powerful body in the Legislature.
I am a tenure-track faculty member in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and have been in the state for only two years. I have a lot to learn and am naively optimistic that cooler heads will prevail and the tenure threats will wash over in time. But I cannot bring myself to a place of comfort; I am truly worried. And I am not just worried for Wisconsin, but for other states that will follow suit if this change actually happens.
Wisconsin is unique in that we are the only state (to my knowledge) to have enshrined tenure into state law. Moving this law from state statute to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents policy would not be entirely uncommon in the national context. What is uncommon is how political our board is compared to other states -- the governor appoints 16 of the 18 members and colleges don’t have their own campus boards to interact with the system.
But even less common -- and far much more egregious -- is Section 39 of the Joint Finance Committee’s omnibus motion. It allows the Board to “terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment… due to a budget or program decision…” So instead of using widely accepted processes, faculty and staff can be terminated for “…program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists under current law.”
This undermines the core principles of shared governance, strips away due process rights and is an obvious assault on academic freedom. The board says its members will “adopt policies that reflect existing statutory language” and ensure faculty and staff will retain the same due process protections currently under state law.
If Section 39 of the budget bill redefines tenure, then the board must comply with the new state law.
This new definition extends far beyond the standard financial exigency criteria for termination of appointments and is out of line with the American Association of University Professors’ academic freedom guidelines. And the proposed change is happening without consulting the very stakeholders the law was designed to protect -- university faculty and staff members.
I know these tensions aren’tnew; we are constantly justifying our existence and under financial stress. I get that. But this is a bridge too far. It doesn’t matter if the regents use existing statutory language, because this omnibus motion would kill it all. It trumps regents policy.
If this policy change happens, it will set a precedent for other states to follow, so watch Wisconsin closely. Keeping Section 39 could set in motion a series of events that will threaten the university’s ability to recruit and retain faculty, generate revenue, and even threaten our accreditation status.
As much as I wish this were all political theater or a simple misunderstanding, it is not. It is a very real threat and one that has been years in the making.
Instituting the $250 million budget cut will create the conditions where the Board of Regents can exercise their new authority to fire at will. The long-term academic and financial costs will far outweigh the short-term political benefits, and I hope our elected officials have the ability to see that far down the road.
Nicholas Hillman is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
There are important issues around diversity -- notably in terms of ethnicity/race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation and gender -- that have been of concern to institutions of higher education for a while now. The progress made in these areas may be less than impressive, but they have a conspicuous place on our radar screens.
There is another dimension of diversity that has yet to attract the attention it deserves: the diversity of contributions that can be made by different members of an institution’s tenured and tenure-track faculty. Faculty members in these positions are pivotal to fostering the kind of change needed in our colleges and universities if we are to better serve our students. Such change would involve how faculty members judge one another, how departments view their responsibilities, how those responsibilities can best be fulfilled and how the work of faculty members is viewed by academic administrators.
Different institutions have different missions, which should be reflected in what is reasonably expected of their respective faculties. These differences have unfortunately been eroded by status-seeking mission creep. So, for openers, there is the famous advice of Polonius (who has received insufficient respect for his wisdom, probably because he conveyed it in a way that was boring to a younger person): “To thine own self be true.”
While it may seem obvious that a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate and undesirable for institutions with different missions and constituencies, it may also be undesirable within an institution as well, even if that institution is a research university. While the holy trinity of research, teaching and service on the face of it provides room for flexibility, differences in how each is valued and assessed yield a generally hierarchical structure with publication and attracting grant funds being the coin of the realm and relatively easy to quantify.
But even in research universities, not all members of a department need to balance their research and teaching contributions in exactly the same proportions. Moreover, one faculty member in his/her time plays many roles -- there may be times in between research projects in which a faculty member might wish to focus more on teaching. (As an aside: the pressure to publish as much and as quickly as possible seems clearly linked to the level of retractions we have been seeing on the part of major scientific and scholarly journals when major research flaws are revealed postpublication.)
A better solution would be an understanding -- reflected in the reward structure -- that not every member of a department needs to make precisely the same contribution to the department in meeting its goals and responsibilities. Crafting such a reward structure is something that the New American Colleges and Universities consortium, for example, has been working on with funding from the Teagle Foundation.
To be sure, one expects that departments in research universities would have a sufficiently strong complement of truly distinguished scholars and scientists who are making significant contributions to the knowledge base in their fields, including some who may not be God’s gift to teaching. Fortunately, many highly distinguished scientists and scholars are also superb teachers. But there should also be room for faculty members whose teaching outdistances their research. If research universities presume to educate undergraduates, they need to consider how well they are fulfilling that responsibility. They should also feel an obligation to prepare their graduate students for occupying positions at a wide range of institutions of higher education; that is, they should be preparing graduate students seeking an academic career for their work not only as researchers, but as teachers.
There have been proposals for a separate track for faculty members who would focus on teaching, as opposed to research. This, however, is a solution that is part of the problem, since it will almost certainly perpetuate a culture of relative disdain for teaching, along with a tendency for teaching-focused appointments to be non-tenure-track. While there is a place for continuing appointments off the tenure track, viewing teaching in general as something unworthy of tenure would be unfortunate both in terms of institutional culture and how universities are viewed by the public.
It would also be desirable to recognize and reward those faculty members who have a special flair for sharing significant results of science and scholarship with a wide audience of readers -- beyond even The New York Review of Books. We already have an admirable complement of public intellectuals who earn their high position in the academic food chain by the traditional measure of research excellence -- though we could always use more of them. In addition, there are those whose contributions to public enlightenment might in and of themselves merit reward beyond what the current system offers.
Barriers to achieving a more informed citizenry may seem daunting, even at times insurmountable, especially when one figures in efforts at deliberate deception by powerful figures and opinion leaders. Indeed, we may feel the need to modify Abraham Lincoln’s famous observation that you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time by observing that those have turned out to be pretty good odds. But we should reward those who give the advancement of public knowledge their best effort -- and sometimes manage to make a difference.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.