June 2, 2015

TENURE’S DEMISE BEGINS?: A Wisconsin state legislative committee approved a measure that would, if ultimately enacted, cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin over two years, and eliminate state laws guaranteeing tenure.  The $250 million cut can be absorbed with little effect by eliminating the unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. As for the tenure reforms:

The elimination of tenure protections was first suggested by [Gov. Scott] Walker back in February, but was considered a longshot proposal. The Joint Finance Committee, however, is tremendously influential, and its decision to send the rollback to the floor of the legislature is seen as making passage much more likely.

By itself, the measure wouldn’t end tenure, but it would remove the current protections it has under state law and allow universities to set their own policies on the matter. In response, current UW system president Ray Cross said the school’s board of regents will act to enshrine tenure as university policy in a meeting later this week.

More details:

In addition to removing tenure from state law, the budget committee called to make it easier for tenured faculty to be fired or laid off. One provision eliminates current law requiring that tenured faculty only be removed for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. Another provision gives Regents authority to lay off any employee, including tenured faculty, if budget circumstances call for it. Seniority protections would go away, although seniority would be one factor considered in who loses jobs.

Darling stated that Wisconsin is the only state that has job protections for tenured faculty written into statutes, which Radomski said was a point of pride for many faculty and a reason faculty find System campuses a desirable place despite comparatively low salaries. The GOP motion calls for the Board of Regents to determine whether to have tenure and what it would entail.

UW faculty are fighting mad. I have mixed feelings about this, and it’s not because I have tenure (which I do).  Undoubtedly, tenure inherently creates some “dead wood”–faculty that slack off and lose interest in their jobs once they know they have a presumptive job for life.  And it would be nice to have a higher education system that reflects a real world ethos of rewarding excellence and punishing lethargy–among faculty, staff and administrators.

On the other hand, the original justification for tenure in higher education (and notice that this emphatically does not apply to lower education, where elementary, middle school and high school teachers do not undertake scholarship as part of their job) is that the job does generally require and involve scholarship, and sometimes that scholarship is politically controversial. Tenure was designed to ensure that scholars could feel free to express their views, without fear of retribution based on viewpoint discrimination. And frankly, it’s conservative professors who need this protection the most, as they are inherently swimming in a sea of progressive colleagues/deans/administrators/sharks who would be tempted to “punish” conservative scholarly viewpoints and activities. These concerns potentially could be allayed with robust statutory protections against viewpoint discrimination, but this would encourage expensive litigation whenever a faculty member is fired. Whether these costs would outweigh the benefits isn’t as clear as it may seem initially.

In any event, the Wisconsin legislature’s proposal represents a thoughtful beginning to an important discussion about what tenure means, and when it is needed (if ever).

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