Tenure: A Eulogy

Dear Tenure,

It’s still a little hard to believe that we’re all gathered here today to say good-bye to you. I know you’d been ill lately, but even until close to the end, many of us hoped against hoped that you’d pull through. But now you’re gone, and we’re all trying to imagine what the world will look like without your reassuring presence. You’ve been such a big part of our lives ever since we first met you, and living without you is going to take some adjustment.

For me, this is something of a double death, for I earned tenure, along with my promotion to associate professor, at the University at Albany, SUNY, a name that has become infamous in higher-education circles ever since its administration announced, in the fall of 2010, that it would cut five arts and humanities programs as a result of poor management and lack of academic integrity the post-2008 financial crisis. Just before that announcement, I had left for what were then greener pastures, leaving a department that was dying on the vine to become director of an academic center with great potential, if a recent seven-figure gift and the institutional and community support that came with it were any indication.

Still, it wasn’t an entirely straightforward decision, because though Albany is not exactly Paris, my family had a good life there. We had made very dear friends, and even if the university was a mess, I had terrific colleagues whom I loved working with. We managed to do good work despite the lack of vision at the helm of the institution—a combination that has become all too common across academia. The moment of epiphany, though, came during a long walk with my wife as the deadline for our decision to stay or go was fast approaching. She turned to me and said, “You’ve been working so hard, but I feel as if you’ve been wearing shackles. It’s time to take them off. Let’s go to Milwaukee.”

My wise and generous wife was right: here, the shackles did come off. Despite its own encounters with the budget crisis, UW-Milwaukee has provided an environment that has allowed my colleagues and me to achieve many good things. We’ve hosted notable scholars, writers, and performers; curated art exhibits; organized workshops and symposia; taught and mentored students; partnered with many programs on campus and organizations in the wider community; written books and articles, and made an impact in our fields. It has been challenging to do all this in an increasingly constrained budget environment, but we have been creative and resourceful, and continue to accomplish important things.

Then, tenure, a few months ago, we suddenly learned that you had fallen gravely ill. Looking back, it all seems so avoidable. The budget “crisis” that supposedly triggered your illness was completely fabricated, and no evidence was ever presented to show that sacrificing you would help the system financially anyway. But those most responsible for your care made a series of disastrous choices, and your health went into free fall. Politicians repeatedly slandered the dedicated employees of the state’s universities, and demeaned the valuable work we do. Most of the regents of the university failed to resist changes that threaten to permanently unravel one of the world’s great public university systems. The system president, not to be outdone, has repeatedly thanked the legislature for the poison pills it has doled out. And if any UW chancellor has come out with a full-throated articulation of the value of academic work and the danger of a $250 million cut, the removal of tenure protections, and the weakening of shared governance, then I must have missed it.

And now you are but a memory. I remember being able to speak my mind about what I thought was best for the institution, without even imagining that doing so might threaten my livelihood. I remember being able to teach challenging texts in class without worrying that someone might take offense for any reason, and try to have me fired. I remember inviting speakers to talk about sensitive topics, knowing that should any of my guests’ remarks court controversy, my position would be secure.

I appreciated your being with me for all of those reasons, and now that you are gone—at least from public higher education in Wisconsin—I miss you tremendously. I expect I will occasionally pause before hitting “send” after writing an email, wondering if even the most calmly worded critique of an administrative proposal might land on the wrong desk, and be met with recriminations. I may find myself scanning the audience when one of my visiting speakers makes a provocative statement, and wonder whether the frown on an audience member’s face could translate into something more dangerous. Maybe a post on this very blog, or a tweet, will bring the sword of Damocles down on my head. That’s not even a far-fetched scenario any more.

So tenure-in-Wisconsin, my old friend, rest in peace. I hope we’ll see each other again. I’ll cling to at least a small ray of hope and wish for your resurrection, speedily and in our day. Or maybe I’ll meet you again in some other place. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will raise a glass in your memory, mourn your passing, and figure out how to carry on in a world—or a state, at least—that no longer has you in it.

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About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of yiddishstage.org. Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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3 Responses to Tenure: A Eulogy

  1. Reblogged this on christinejbaxter.net and commented:
    Joel Berkowitz was one of my most enthusiastic professors at the very large and frequently impersonal University at Albany. He made Judaic Studies and Yiddish Culture come alive for this WASP of a girl from the suburbs. I will forever be indebted to him for the enthusiasm with which he taught.

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  2. Joel Berkowitz says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Christine. I know that similar things could be, and are, said of numerous colleagues of mine throughout the UW System. The talent and dedication of my colleagues is both inspiring and humbling. The damage that has been done to the system by this budget is devastating, and quite possibly irreparable.

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  3. Frank M. D'Ambrosio says:

    I have a very strong suspicion that the same thing will sooner or later happen to the State University of New York and City of New York University systems. This is based on the conviction that the same sort of stupidity and greed resides in the hearts of top administrators everywhere.

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