wisconsin and the attack on tenure

Things in Wisconsin are looking not so good at the moment. I’ve been wanting to write something about this all week but haven’t managed to find the time. So, in the interest of something being better than nothing, putting a few quick thoughts out there.

First, if you haven’t been paying attention, Governor Scott Walker has proposed legislation that would take tenure out of state legislation and eliminate shared governance in the University of Wisconsin system. Today (finally) it’s in the NYT. Here’s what the Chronicle has to say (I think that’s an ungated link; sorry if not); here’s Inside Higher Ed. This is in addition to major budget cuts that are just a bit smaller than those proposed a few months ago.

I won’t go into details of the proposal. But certainly in light of similar cuts and attacks on higher education in North Carolina and Arizona, it’s both depressing and hard not to be concerned that we’re at some kind of turning point of not just gradual defunding of public higher ed, but actual hostility to it.

I have a lot of thoughts on this, but two quick points for now. One, I am hopeful that the business community — particularly the high-tech, R&D-intensive business community — will quietly work to rein in at least some of these excesses. That seems most likely to make a difference in North Carolina, which has all the companies associated with the Research Triangle. I think it would be very wise of supporters of public higher ed to try to ally with the parts of business that have a strong interest in educated workers and R&D.

Two, I was at Peking University for a comparative higher ed workshop last week. (Jointly organized, coincidentally, with the University of Wisconsin.) It was fascinating to hear the Chinese perspective on higher ed. And it was amazing to be in an environment of such investment and growth. Right now, China is exerting a lot of effort figuring out how to better train its own PhDs, so that it doesn’t have to send them to the U.S. and Europe and end up losing a good chunk of them along the way. Maybe we need to be making louder arguments about how other countries are going to eat our lunch if we continue to disinvest in higher ed. The U.S. system still has a lot going for it — and academic freedom, including tenure, is one of the things in its favor. Right now we appear to be voluntarily giving something that puts our university system at a real advantage relative to many parts of the world.

I would like people to support public universities for the reasons I do — because I believe that both education and knowledge production are fundamentally good things, and are enterprises worth collectively supporting. But sometimes you need some more instrumental arguments in order to bring others to your side. Supporters of public higher ed could be making some of these cases more often, and louder.

Written by epopp

June 5, 2015 at 9:11 am

Posted in uncategorized

10 Responses

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  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about this too, in part because NC is in much the same boat. And I agree that we need to promote the academic model both in principle and for instrumental reasons. One point I think is worth making is, essentially: nobody sends their kids to the state legislature to be educated! In other words: institutionally, the research and education are of better quality because there are rules that prevent the legislature (and boards of governors and such) from meddling in the work of the faculty.



    June 5, 2015 at 10:50 am

  2. Yep. I think it’s easy for those of us in secure academic positions to underestimate how much resentment there is of such security by the majority of Americans who no longer have anything like it. So the arguments need to be really practical: Look, here’s what happens when people don’t have tenure. Teachers can’t demand high standards from students. Professors can’t do good science, because science requires the capacity for a certain amount of long-range planning. There is a tendency for defenses to quickly jump to “academic freedom” without making arguments that are likely to resonate with anybody not already invested in higher ed.

    Of course, having already shifted much of the teaching to NTT faculty does not greatly help with making this case.

    Liked by 3 people


    June 5, 2015 at 11:16 am

  3. A Chinese colleague tells me that tenure is rare to non-existant in China.

    I think that tenure is going to be watered down across the country. I’m sure many people whom we recognize to be top-notch will leave the UW system. The million dollar question is whether students, patents, businesses, and everyone else notices a difference after the exodus. If no one sees any difference after tenure is watered down, then the institution is in big trouble. I’m betting most people don’t see a difference.



    June 5, 2015 at 4:13 pm

  4. A few points.

    Tenure exists in many systems in the US. Judges and Lawyers for one. Becoming a partner in a law firm carries many of the same attributes, plus for a sizeable firm, good pay. There are many other roles such as these which are a tenure system, but that we don’t call them that.

    Just as big of an issue though, seems to be the point made in this Chronicle article ( ) that many in the public and most in policy circles struggle with the difference between the research university and the teaching universities, especially as taxes are cut, so funding is cut and tuition is raised.



    June 5, 2015 at 5:40 pm

  5. @JNCohen – Well, they may notice a difference in Madison, where the university is a substantial driver of local economic activity and losing top faculty will mean losing grant dollars, donations, building projects, etc. Outside of Madison, it will probably be easier to ignore.

    @LKT – My impression is that in law, if you don’t uphold your end of the bargain (bringing in clients), it is easier for the firm to make your life unpleasant to the point that you don’t want to stay.

    Thanks for the link — I missed that piece. I think you are right — but I also think it’s really hard to make the case to the public that non-S&T research is worthwhile. It’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which something resembling the current system is preserved in S&T fields but the social sciences and humanities are dramatically changed.



    June 5, 2015 at 7:43 pm

  6. The system of tenure has its advantages and its disadvantages, but I honestly do not understand the connection between tenure and investments in higher education. These are two separate issues and coflating them seems dishonest to me. They should be discussed and dealt separately.



    June 6, 2015 at 3:03 pm

  7. @palavrot – Certainly you can make separate arguments for and against public investment in higher ed and tenure, and there are people who favor such investment but don’t think the tenure system is necessary. But in the current political environment, the two are clearly linked, so I’m not sure why it would be dishonest to address them together.



    June 7, 2015 at 2:46 pm

  8. I don’t think we as a profession do nearly enough to talk about the importance of tenure or academic freedom. In particular, we do not do enough to explain to people why the ability to maintain academic rigor is important. Just to give one example that is a bit divorced from the employment security angle, performance funding initiatives which emphasize on-time graduation rates would tend to encourage a decrease in academic rigor so that students make adequate academic progress and do not fail or withdraw from courses–something we could easily achieve by giving our students open-book fill-in-the-blank tests with As for all. It is tenure which protects us from such a demand and thus tenure that gives us the best chance of ensuring that students have the opportunity to receive a high-quality, rigorous education that challenges them and helps them learn and develop the skills which will benefit them economically, socially, culturally, and personally for the rest of their lives.

    However, as Arum and Roksa point out in their research, even with tenure many faculty members feel the pressure to reduce the rigor of their courses, especially where institutional demands do not focus on strong teaching–thus, as @JNCohen points out, students, parents, and businesses that hire our graduates may not see much of a difference. Indeed, it is possible to find evidence suggesting that non-tenure-line but full-time faculty may be better teachers than tenure-track faculty at research universities, presumably because non-tenure-line faculty are evaluated based on teaching to a much greater extent than tenure-track faculty in such contexts ( If we want tenure to continue to be worth it to our students, our institutions, and the broader public, a situation in which our teaching work is considerably less important than our other obligations and in which faculty and students make what Arum and Roksa call the “bargain” of “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone” (Academically Adrift p. 5) is untenable.



    June 7, 2015 at 8:05 pm

  9. @Mikaila — this is a great point. I agree that we need more student-centered justification of higher ed in general. Adding it to the long list of things to write about…



    June 8, 2015 at 9:42 pm

  10. […] I suggested the other day that the business community cares about science, and that that is one potential source of support for higher ed, at least, if not necessarily for tenure. But what the average American cares about most with regard to universities is not science, but teaching. […]


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