Jun 29 2015

Assaults on Tenure

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Assaults on Tenure and the Moral Crisis in the Academy

Let’s face it, America is squandering its last great export: higher education.

Signs of that forfeiture abound: adjunctification, administrative bloat, corporatization, declining access to tertiary education (a consequence of ever-rising tuitions), and an obsession with commodifying the products of the university to suit the needs of the marketplace.

Yet, such a calamity is one of our own making, and nowhere in America’s prized system of colleges and universities is the loss of that integrity more apparent than in the unwarranted and short-sighted attacks on tenure, free-speech, and shared governance across the nation, as exemplified this month by Wisconsin.

Astute commentators observe that Wisconsin’s governor, angling to run as an anti-union and anti-education conservative contender for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination, proposes to eliminate a statewide tenure policy enshrined in state law and instead grant more authority to the university’s Board of Regents.

For many, such a transmission of authority (from state to board) may seem harmless enough. Surely, the Board of Regents recognizes the vital importance that our leading scholars retain the ability to speak, write, and research without hindrance—i.e., the free pursuit of knowledge to the protection of democracy?

Apparently not, for the “Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System consists of 18 members, 16 of whom are appointed by the Governor.” In other words, Mr. Walker has been stacking that governing body since his election in 2010 and now makes a shrewd calculation to grab media headlines, and endear himself to a certain segment of the electorate opposed to state-funded higher education for the benefit of the commonweal.

In addition to eroding tenure protections in state law, Mr. Walker would bestow on the Board of Regents the legal right to terminate employees—including currently tenured faculty members—for any reason related to “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection” (should Section 39 of the Joint Finance Committee’s omnibus motion win passage).

Simultaneously, the governor has announced plans for a $250 million budget cut to the University of Wisconsin, which would allow the board to act on those proposed provisions.

However, since neither free speech and enquiry, nor shared governance, can survive in the absence of tenure protections, de rigueur in the United States since 1940, faculty members at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison, such as Sara Goldrick-Rab, have decided to leave, since the “ability to sift and winnow through evidence, speak truthfully” threatens to be utterly surrendered.

Nicholas Hillman (also at Madison) observes that this assault on tenure and intellectual freedom has been years in the making, and institution of the $250 million budget cut proposed by the governor would simply “create the conditions where the Board of Regents can exercise their new authority to fire at will.”

Although the repercussions of the unfolding crisis in Wisconsin have yet to fully resound throughout the academy, scholars and researchers are rightly raising alarm.

How ironic then, in light of the diminished state of the American academy, that Republican Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey is holding congressional hearings regarding academic freedom—in China!

Representative Smith’s concerns regard the increasing number of American institutions operating in the Middle Kingdom, such as New York University in Shanghai, where any restrictions on free speech are considered antithetical to the hallowed American principles of “absolute academic freedom and independence” in higher learning.

Rather than lecturing the Chinese, who unlike Americans lack a tradition of free speech protected by tenure, Representative Smith might turn his attention to the erosion of tenure at public colleges and universities around our nation, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, Louisiana State University, and University of Southern Maine, among others.

As for governor Scott Walker, Robert Kuttner observes: “public universities are now only about 15 percent supported by public funds. So it adds injury to insult when a rightwing governor cuts tax support—leaving a public university effectively private when it comes to meeting its budget—but that same governor attempts to dictate academic policy.”

Ultimately, though, the governor will not be able to have it both ways, for top-tier research universities cannot sustain themselves when they fail to attract the best scholars, researchers, teachers, and students the world has to offer.

Therefore, when Wisconsinites look back ten or twenty years from now, and wonder what happened to the multi-generational legacy of that prized university system—they will know whom to thank for squandering it.