Fake Tenure at the University of Wisconsin

What does the end of academic tenure look like? For centuries in this country tenure, the contractual right of a professor not to be fired without just cause, according to the standards set by the American Association of University Professors, has been the gold standard of academia. Only 24 percent of college instructors are tenured, but it’s long been essential to the idea of how higher education works. It protects academics from capricious human resource decisions, and largely insulates them from bottom line financial concerns of academic administrators.

But perhaps the most serious blow to academic security has come at the flagship university of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made a serious effort to undermine the power of academia during his time in office, particularly by removing tenure protections from state law.

Tenure policy will now be determined by Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System (16 of the 18 regents are appointed by the governor), who would have the right to lay off professors due to budget or “program” decisions. According to Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, this is not good enough. It looks like tenure, but it isn’t. As she writes:

#TrueTenure is gone in the University of Wisconsin. I’ve taken a lot of heat for saying this — both Administrators & faculty don’t like hearing it, and tell me, tenure continues to exist.

It doesn’t. It died when the Wisconsin Legislature passed a budget this summer that authorized/required (it’s unclear) UW System to lay off faculty for reasons not permitted by the AAUP. AAUP tenure is #TrueTenure in the United States. It’s what we tenured professors earned. It’s what all of our esteemed peers offer. It’s what’s required to do our jobs.

What we have today is #FakeTenure — it’s tenure without the teeth that bite the hand that attempts to smack us for Administrative mistakes. Some think that UW-Madison will manage to restore #TrueTenure via its own policies.

Academics

In a greater sense, this is not the worst thing to happen as far as labor standards are concerned. Wisconsin professors will not become Walmart cashiers. They would still enjoy considerable labor protections.

But it’s not real tenure; it would basically reduce them to the status of regular, private, employees with relatively strong unions.

The UW Regents and the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor Scott Walker, and yes even current leadership in UW System and UW-Madison… are all part of the same fabric that seeks to tear down critical thought and action in the state — any thought and action that opposes the marketization of education.

She’s right. Because there’s no reason to think this trend will reverse in the near future. Wisconsin will not reach some magical point of state financial security and then grant more rights to academics.

No, the next stage will be worse. The next financial crisis will result in more drummed-up political resentment against professors, and then politicians will cut some other benefits. This is how it happens.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer