Tag Archives: University of Wisconsin

Misunderstanding Tenure

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker seems to be engaged on a vendetta against higher education.

Walker has cited Wisconsin’s (very real) fiscal woes as justification for slashing  $250 million dollars from the University of Wisconsin’s budget; however, Time Magazine reports that he has proposed forking over that same amount– $250 million in taxpayer money– to help construct a new arena for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who have threatened to relocate if the city doesn’t build them a new home by 2017.

Walker previously tried to change the mission statement of the University from a search for truth to “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” He retreated after that effort created a firestorm within the state, but now he has launched an entirely gratuitous attack on tenure.

There is immense public misunderstanding of tenure. Tenure is not “job security,” as it is often portrayed; as Josh Marshall recently wrote at Talking Points Memo, 

Tenure is among other things in place to protect scholars from the patronage and political demands of the moment and incentivize independent scholarship free of ideological, market or political pressures. That is 100% true. And by and large it is a good system – especially when understood in the larger context of academic life.

Tenured professors are protected from dismissals based upon the expression of  unpopular viewpoints. We are not protected against dismissals for poor work performance. (My own school has a post-tenure review process that defines performance expectations and expressly permits sanctions–including termination–for continued failure to meet those expectations.)

In a very real sense, however, the actual operation of the tenure system is beside the point. As Marshall notes,

The crown jewel of the Wisconsin university system is the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It is one of the top research universities in the country and the world. With this move, you will basically kiss that jewel goodbye. To me this is the more salient reality than whether you think academic tenure is a good thing or not in itself.

If this happens, over time, the professors who can will leave. And as the top flight scholars and researchers depart, so will the reputation of the institution. So will graduate students who want to study with them, the best undergrads, money that flows to prestigious scholarship. Don’t get me wrong. Not in a day or a year or even several years. But it will. If you don’t get this, you don’t understand the economy and incentive structure of university life.

If Walker’s attacks on a storied academic institution are successful, the University will be hard pressed to “meet the workforce needs of the state,” let alone engage in a search for truth.

Truth or Consequences

A University of Wisconsin website describes the Wisconsin Idea as “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.” The University’s mission statement has long included the following language: “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

According to AP and several other news outlets, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker–in addition to cutting $300 million from the University’s budget–

 had wanted to insert language in the budget stating the university’s mission was “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” He wanted to remove language saying UW’s mission is to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus” and to “serve and stimulate society.” He also wanted to remove the statement “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

When the proposed changes became public, the enormous blowback obviously took the Governor by surprise, and he backed off, initially suggesting the change was “a drafting error” that hadn’t been caught.

Right.

The New York Times and other media sources immediately debunked that lame excuse. As a blogger at Daily Kos wrote:

First of all, today I obtained copies of the original records from the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau’s drafting office, which show that there was a long chain of correspondence during which the Walker administration actually proposed deleting the Wisconsin Idea. The records also reveal that numerous officials within the administration proofed and approved of deleting the Wisconsin Idea.

Second, this wasn’t “somehow overlooked” by University of Wisconsin officials.  They objected on several occasions to it, but the Walker administration refused to back down.

As the Times noted in a scathing editorial, “It was as if a trade school agenda were substituted for the idea of a university.”

Scott Walker is emblematic of the anti-intellectualism that is so rampant on the American Right. He is one of the (far too many) shallow and ambitious politicians who think education and job training are synonymous, that scholarly research and the “search for truth” are elitist non-essentials, and that humans don’t need to know anything that isn’t immediately useful for obtaining gainful employment. They’d have handed Socrates that cup of hemlock without thinking twice.

After all, if people are allowed to search for truth, they’ll ask inconvenient questions. They’ll challenge the martinets. They might even see themselves as citizens rather than obedient consumers.