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The End of Tenure in Wisconsin

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Scott Walker and his hacks have destroyed tenure at the University of Wisconsin. This been known for several months as the bill went through the state legislature and Walker’s desk. Given that situation, the Madison campus decided to do the best with the situation and write really strong tenure guidelines for its campus. But last week Walker’s hacks on the Board of Regents made it clear they weren’t having any of that:

The news of the day was that UW-Madison will not be allowed to write its own tenure policy, but instead will be bound within the parameters of a system-wide policy developed by the Board of Regents. Why would anyone have thought otherwise? Perhaps because UW-Madison’s chancellor spent the summer explicitly and repeatedly insisting that Madison would be able to write its own policy, as part of its newfound autonomy in personnel matters (Wis. Stat. 36.115). The UW-Madison University Committee did as much, drafting language that attempted (however hopefully) to assert strong, AAUP-level tenure protections while staying within the confines of the new statutory language of Act 55. Many seem to have believed that a strong Madison tenure policy could serve as a model for the entire System; but in any case Madison would be okay. The reality check came on Tuesday in the form of a memo from Ray Cross, and yesterday’s task force discussion made clear that no amount of campus-level rule-making will trump the policy to be adopted by the Regents.

We learned a bit more yesterday about what that Regents policy will look like. In particular, we learned that the Regents will mandate a post-tenure review process one of whose possible outcomes is termination of a tenured appointment. The Regents’ post-tenure review proposal has been drafted and presented in much the same way as the Legislature’s program modification language in May: a brief nod at a good thing (merit pay, a tenured appointment) followed by lengthy, point-by-point detail on how to fire people. System lawyers asserted that termination of an “underperforming” faculty member through the post-tenure review process will fall under dismissal for cause (the AAUP, to put it mildly, does not share this view). Never mind that there are no agreed-upon performance parameters, and that any attempt to codify such parameters will (i) be a bureaucratic nightmare and (ii) introduce perverse incentives for tenured faculty, almost certainly to the detriment of students. The Regents insist, plausibly, that this is what legislators have demanded. But the Regents have yet to convince anyone that those legislators can actually be appeased.

We can probably expect similar policies to be passed in most conservative states, as higher education is the one bastion of liberalism left in the country. It’s the only place where someone like myself can not only speak out publicly about the issues of the day without worrying about my job but can speak back to my bosses without worrying about my job. Of course, as we saw in my case in 2012, even with a union and without a tenure-destroying policy, my job was under serious threat once my position did not reflect how my president and provost wanted to see themselves and their employees. Even if universities are not really that liberal anymore, with the rise of business and other pre-professional programs eroding what was perhaps a strong liberal-leaning tendency in university culture, the structure for people like myself to do what I do still exists. And while the rhetoric around this new policy is about “underperforming faculty,” who determines what that means? Do the right-wing politicians pushing this really care about an 65-year old English professor who hasn’t published anything in 20 years? I don’t think so. They care about being able to target troublesome faculty. And that’s worrying.

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