The Tenure-Flavored University

What’s left of a university when some of its core ideals and protections have been gutted? And what do its faculty and staff do now?

Those are the grim questions we’re faced with at the end of a grueling roller coaster of a budget process that has played out in Wisconsin over the past five months, starting with the bombshell announcement, in late January, of a planned $300 million cut to the UW System, and the system’s conversion into a public authority. After months of UW supporters taking to social media, traditional media, and other formats to make their case, the final result is slightly different, but hardly any better. Now awaiting Scott Walker’s signature is a proposed $250 million cut to the system, the removal of tenure protections from state statute and their replacement with expanded provisions for firing tenured faculty, and the watering down of the UW System’s justifiably vaunted mechanisms of shared governance. In other words, education in Wisconsin right now looks like the closing moments of Hamlet, with corpses strewn across the stage but minus the arrival of a nobleman to help restore order.

Indeed, many of us are left with grave doubts about not just the effectiveness of our campus leaders, but of their motivations. Chancellors like Madison’s Rebecca Blank and UWM’s Mark Mone are trying to reassure us that the tenure protections that used to be enshrined in statute will be replicated in Board of Regents rules, but many of us are having trouble seeing how the latter, even if enacted, could possibly protect anyone against the broadly and vaguely worded firing provisions that Scott Walker can enact with a flick of his pen. And the combination of system leadership’s public embrace of new “efficiencies” and “flexibilities,” and their failure to lead a cohesive, vigorous opposition to the state GOP’s all-out assault on its public universities, certainly leaves this observer feeling far from optimistic about how our ships are to be steered through the fog and darkness that will hang over us for at least the next few years, and possibly much longer.

In the meantime, it looks almost certain that those of us who are tenured will no longer be tenured—at least not in any meaningful way—and that those who were on their way to earning tenure on a UW campus will no longer be able to do so, again in any more than name. So we are left asking questions we never thought we’d need to ask, starting with, as the poet once asked, Should I stay or should I go? Some are already going. UW-Madison’s Mahesh Mahanthappa is moving his plastics lab to the University of Minnesota, while his colleague Frank Kreutsch is relocating his atmospheric chemistry lab to Harvard. With them go years of expertise, graduate assistants, and significant actual and potential grant funding. Chuck Rybak has poignantly described the impending departures of several of his most esteemed colleagues at UW-Green Bay. And such resignations are undoubtedly at the vanguard of a large exodus of talent from the system that may make it impossible for any UW campus ever to return to its former glory, even if the destructive measures about to be enacted get reversed in the not-too-distant future.

Many good people will remain, for a wide variety of reasons, including their love of their institutions (in spite of everything!), the state (ditto!), their communities, their friends and families. Some of us who had grown accustomed to being able to speak our mind as a result of having earned tenure protections through an arduous, multi-year process may speak out a bit less. Some may start looking over our shoulders a bit more. Others may end up going in exactly the opposite direction, all but daring their overlords to try to get rid of them. That could make for some interesting, and perhaps even historically important, legal battles.

While some will leave, who if anyone will take their place, if and when there’s any funding available for new hires? I find it hard to imagine anyone aspiring to a tenure-track position in the UW System in the wake of these developments. (And side note: maybe the UW needs a new category for such positions. I suggest either “tenure-track-style” or “tenure-track-flavored”; almost as good [not really] as the real thing!) I also find it hard to imagine myself arguing for new hires in either my program or department with the same zeal that I used to. I predict that tenure-track-flavored jobs here will become like post-docs not on steroids, but perhaps on multivitamins. That is, good applicants might consider taking them as a decent place to start their careers, until they can move on to institutions where earning tenure actually means something.

Mind you, even those stark choices will look like luxuries to those with fewer options: grossly underpaid and overworked lecturers with limited mobility or leverage, or employees—tenured, tenure-track, or otherwise—whose programs will fold under the weight of the devastating budget cuts about to be enacted. Moving to another institution can be complicated and disruptive, but at least there’s a new, often better job at the end of that process. Not everyone, by any means, will end up being so fortunate.

This is a dark chapter in the story of public higher education in this country. Whether it is to remain a local story or, God forbid, a national franchise is one of the broader questions hanging over us. For that answer, as for many others, we will all have to stay tuned–and stay alert.


About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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One Response to The Tenure-Flavored University

  1. Mary in Stevens Point says:

    May I suggest, with a nod to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that we start calling it “skim-milk tenure”?

    Liked by 1 person

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