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.