Time for a New Strategy

The erosion of faculty rights in Wisconsin shows that focusing on professors or academe alone won't work, and that it's time to talk about all employees and employers, writes Christopher Newfield.

July 20, 2015

It’s a widely noted fact that colleges and universities are under new pressure to justify their value and function. The same is true of tenure-track faculty members, who are at the heart of the higher education system whose benefits much of society now claims to find mysterious, and whose job security is increasingly criticized.

While colleges face criticism for converting most of their teaching posts to non-tenure-track status, they also face criticism for offering tenure to the rest. The final decision by the Wisconsin Legislature to weaken tenure and shared governance in the University of Wisconsin System teaches a lesson that should resonate beyond Wisconsin: the standard defense of tenure and shared governance isn’t good enough to address widespread skepticism about their public benefits.

Faculty members have gone as far as they can by pleading an academic exemption from the financial control and autocratic management that typify the U.S. workplace, crystallized in the power of summary dismissal. Faculty members now need to explain the value not only of their own job security but also of job security in the workforce as a whole. We will need to be much clearer about why tenure and shared governance enable core functions of the university and also of any productive, creative workplace.

I am aware of the dangers of this kind of escalation and expansion of what we’ve been taught are unpopular job protections. And yet academics can no longer defend tenure and shared governance as minority exemptions. We need to explain their principles and benefits for an overall workforce that has suffered from their absence -- and is now unmoved by our special pleading.

In the important case of Wisconsin, the state Legislature and governor have now passed and signed major qualifications of UW System tenure and governance, including student governance over the expenditures of their fees. One section introduces language legalizing layoffs of tenured faculty “due to budget or program decision,” and then offers a long, ornate set of procedures for dismissing tenured faculty as a result of pretty much any programmatic change. Another section eliminates statutory language that gives faculty members direct managerial authority in the university by vesting them “with responsibility for the immediate governance of [their] institution” while expecting them to “actively participate in institutional policy development." Though tenured faculty members aren’t yet living in the at-will employment utopia of the American right, where one can be fired without cause or due process, the plan makes them vulnerable to restructuring strategies that a range of commentators equate with making universities more efficient.

Since these proposals will now change UW significantly, and perhaps model changes in other states, what should faculty members do next?

The Typical Faculty Response

Let’s start with what faculty members usually do. The current state of the art was on display at a multicampus academic senate meeting in Madison where faculty members had gathered to discuss the situation. One much-admired intervention was delivered by Professor David J. Vanness, who argued that the weakening of tenure and of faculty governance threatened core academic activity:

"This is not an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. This is an issue of academic freedom. Freedom to discover and to teach new knowledge, regardless of whether it offends (or enriches) a specific business interest or political party …. If we allow ourselves to be led down this path laid out before us … there will be nobody left to 'follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.' We will sift where it is safe to sift. We will winnow where we are told to winnow. Our pace of discovery will slow and our reputation will falter."

I heartily agree. But I am already inside the academic consensus that the pursuit of truth requires intellectual freedom and professional self-governance. Since most people don’t enjoy either of these in their working or even their personal lives, they wouldn’t immediately see why empowering chancellors will hurt teaching or slow the pace of discovery.

Rather than revealing the inner workings and effects of tenure and shared governance, faculty members generally do three other things. We cast tenure and shared governance as constitutional principles beyond the legitimate reach of politics. We instrumentalize these practices in the name of competitive excellence. We put our defense in the hands of our university’s senior managers. Each of these three moves made sense at various times in the past, but they are now serious mistakes.

First, what happens when faculty present academic freedom as transcending politics? The question was brought home to me again by a good op-ed called “What is driving Scott Walker's war on Wisconsin universities?” The author, Saul Newton, an Army veteran studying at UW-Waukesha, discusses the conservative Bradley Foundation’s role in intellectualizing reasons to bring education to heel. He cites a 1994 article by the foundation’s president that, in Newton’s phrase, justified “demolishing public institutions, specifically public education.”

I followed Newton’s advice and read the Bradley Foundation article, whose ideas about K-12 governance are now being applied to public universities. I was struck by two features. First, the piece advanced a quasi-Foucauldian vision of society in which any group’s principles lie within society’s structures of power rather than outside them. “Educational policy is always and everywhere a profoundly political matter,” wrote foundation president Michael S. Joyce. Second, it defined its attack on an “exhausted” progressivism as a movement for democratic accountability: “If educational policy is finally and irrevocably political, then surely, in a self-governing polity, the people themselves are the source of educational policy -- not a distant bureaucracy.”

When Joyce moved on to demonize teachers for wielding the “political hegemony of the ‘helping and caring’ professionals and bureaucrats,” he did so in the name of restoring democracy. It doesn’t matter whether this framework is right or wrong (it’s wrong). Once it has been established, and faculty then defend tenure as a privilege of their intellectual status, they don’t rebut the right’s democratic critique but validate it. The democracy frame makes academic freedom look like a license to ignore public concerns rather than to engage them in dialogue from an independent position.

On the second error: university administrators and faculty alike predict that quality decline will follow any weakening of tenure. A group of distinguished chaired professors at UW-Madison stated that qualifying tenure would make the university “suffer significant competitive disadvantages.” Competitiveness is often measured in rankings shorthand: UW-Madison is 47th in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings this year, is among the top 15 among public universities, and has a large number of top-20 departments, all of which may fall in the rankings as they come to lose every contest for top candidates to peers with stronger tenure protections.

But how much would lowered rankings reduce faculty quality and public benefit? Top rankings mostly concern the Madison campus, and so involve only a minority of the students and faculty in the UW System. Politicians also know that hundreds of qualified people apply for every good tenure-track position, and thus assume that the UW system will still enjoy a surplus of excellent candidates. Wisconsin departments may have a harder time landing their top one or two picks who have offers from other major universities, but politicians may reasonably doubt that their third or fourth candidates will offer a noticeably lesser student experience.

More fundamentally, departmental or university stature is an inaccurate proxy for the competitiveness most people care about, which is the economic kind that raises the standard of living. Universities have constantly asserted their direct economic impact, and conservatives are taking this rhetoric literally. Thus an alleged blueprint for the Walker changes, a report called “Beyond the Ivory Tower” that was published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and authored by the longtime chancellor of UW-Stout, justifies its call for more flexible tenure and governance on the grounds that this will “help the UW System better fulfill its mission to help produce economic development.” University administrators agree that this is their mission, and STEM fields have benefited for decades from the emphasis on technological outputs, often at the expense of funding broad liberal arts-based capabilities. So faculty members’ talk of staying competitive encourages conservatives to ask UW to show them the money. In the U.S. business system, making money normally involves giving management a free hand over employees, thus hoisting professors on their own petard.

We arrive at the third faculty habit, in which a faculty assembly calls on senior managers for protection for tenure and shared governance. There are two issues here. One is the academic freedom to produce research even when its evidence contradicts the beliefs of politicians or business leaders, who then may seek to discredit the study, as recently happened in Wisconsin, by calling it “partisan, garbage research,” and/or by defunding an entire program, as happened in North Carolina. Senior managers often hang tough on this point, and defend the research autonomy of their faculty and their institution.

The other issue is direct faculty control over university policy that goes beyond offering nonbinding advice. I noted that the now-deleted Wisconsin statute expects faculty to be directly involved in “the immediate governance of [their] institution.” Governor Walker does not want this strong version of shared governance. But do System President Ray Cross or UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank? Careful Wisconsin faculty observers like Nicholas Fleisher, Richard Grusin and Chuck Rybak think not, and I can’t call to mind a senior manager who does want full co-governance with faculty.

In addition, UW’s senior managers have some history of efforts to increase their own authority. As Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noteman argue, former Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin’s “New Badger Partnership” sought to delete much state oversight over the university’s budgeting and human resources policies. The current UW administration continued the campaign under another name, even at the cost of accepting state funding cuts. Chancellor Blank told local television that the university could make up for cuts with more freedom from the state, if they just had more time. In other words, senior university managers de facto agreed with the core tenets of movement conservatism that state oversight lowers efficiency while executive authority increases it. Since so much of the conservative business position matched the university’s official position, the voting public could be forgiven for not seeing why the statute changes would affect faculty much.

General Public Benefits, Not Special Privileges

So what would motivate the wider public to fight for academic tenure and shared governance? To present them as general public benefits rather than as our special privileges.

To do this, we will need to undo each of the three mistakes I’ve described. First, rather than casting tenure and shared governance as necessary exceptions to normal workplace politics, we should define them as necessary to workplaces in general. Tenure is a simple idea: protection from the at-will employment practice of firing any employee without cause or due process. Tenure places an obligation on the employer not only to identify specific reasons for termination but to convince others of their validity.

Tenure doesn’t just protect academic freedom; it protects all employees’ investments in their skills, relationships, know-how, and commitment to their organization. I have always thought that tenure should appeal to conservatives, since it defends liberty by protecting one party against another’s arbitrary exercise of authority. Tea Partiers who accuse Barack Obama of being a dictator should logically favor limits on the lawful tyranny of the private sector supervisor. At the same time, Democrats should like generalized tenure for enabling a limited type of workplace democracy. A hundred years ago, the American Association of University Professors constructed academic freedom as the great exception to the autocratic managerialism of American business life. Faculty members will now need to promote workplace freedom from at-will dismissal as right for employees everywhere.

On the second mistake, of touting their competitiveness, faculty members should reject competition as a main driver of high-quality work. We enjoy top rankings and status as much as managers do, and yet in the long run they depend on research and teaching achievements that come from persistence, security, obtuseness, heretical thinking and collaboration. It’s not just that competition encourages wasteful duplication and intellectual imitation, but also that intellectual progress depends profoundly on complicated forms of cooperation among all kinds of people and expertise. Universities teach people to address massively complicated problems that require both individual originality and collaboration. The U.S. doesn’t have a competitiveness disadvantage: it has a collaborative disadvantage, and universities are needed more than ever to develop new kinds of collaborative capabilities. In addition, public universities help their regions, states and nations not by being better than other universities but by doing transformative work in the place they are and with the students they have. Faculty should help the American workplace move in the same direction.

The third mistake: instead of looking to senior management for defense, faculty members should look to employees in other workplaces in advocating democratic rather than autocratic organization. Until our current neo-Taylorist management revival, the efficiency of peer-to-peer self-management was widely understood. The uber-mainstream features the historian David Montgomery chronicling the contributions of indigenous and immigrant craft skill to 19th-century American industrialization, the management gurus Tom Peters and Robert Waterman advocating employee empowerment in their 1980s blockbuster In Search of Excellence, the sociologist Richard Sennett analyzing the centrality of mutually developed craft practices to effective work, and, in a backhanded way, the neoclassical economists now warning about the “skills gap,” since if top-down management were so great companies could simply boss their hirelings to competence.

Such research has established academic analogs, starting with peer review. Wisconsin faculty have pointed out that tenured faculty members must meet their own colleagues’ rigorous performance standards to get tenure and must then continue to satisfy them to progress. Another common academic practice is the combination of outcomes evaluation with freedom to organize everyday work. Although professionals have had an easier time claiming this right to direct their own work, to whom does this principle not apply? Everyone needs training and ongoing feedback, and everyone needs latitude to shape their own efforts.

The faculty’s central political problem is that their assertion of their tenure and governance rights is read as their tacit denial to everyone else. The problem starts with the “new faculty majority” of non-tenure-track professors on campus and spreads out from there. This sense of tenure as a special privilege (error one) is the cornerstone of the politically powerful stereotype of the elitist professors who proclaim their superiority to other people (error two) and can’t deal with regular people directly (error three). In making these mistakes, we have played into our opponents’ hands.

Rather than claiming academic freedom, tenure and fair governance as a special perk of our unique standing, we should hold them out as the general economic and social justice virtues that they are. Faculty have models of collaborative self-governance that we now rarely bother to develop, that we have allowed to serve an ever-smaller share of our colleagues, that are not taken seriously by many administrations, but that are designed to allow both intellectual originality and decent, honorable workplaces. Faculty must now model how shared governance, if spread to other workplaces, would improve society as a whole. And we are going to have to do it soon.


Christopher Newfield is professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, author of Unmaking the Public University (Harvard University Press) and co-editor of the blog Remaking the University.


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