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Scott Walker Is Undermining Academic Freedom at the University of Wisconsin

A "heartbroken" faculty member on the legislative threat to public education

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

The University of Wisconsin (UW) system could, within the month, no longer have a nationally recognized tenure system.

Recently Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee announced a plan to slash state spending on education in the 2015-2017 budget (UW System will receive a $250 million cut) and modify the state laws on tenure and shared governance.

Walker has said that the proposed tenure changes will provide “more autonomy” for the UW system’s Board of Regents (the governing body that oversees the UW system) and for chancellors to manage the cuts. It would do so by allowing tenured faculty to be laid off at the discretion of the chancellors and Board of Regents.

As a faculty member at UW-Madison, I am heartbroken that my state government has seemingly decided to undermine, instead of prioritizing, the K-16 education system.

As a researcher whose work examines the politics of education in the U.S. and around the world, I am deeply concerned by the threat this legislative shift poses to the ability of public university faculty to conduct research about politically inconvenient facts and teach in politically disfavored fields: the core purposes of faculty tenure and shared governance in public universities.

What changes in Wisconsin

First, let me explain how tenure has worked in the UW system and what this proposal means, as there have been some misunderstandings about the proposed changes to UW tenure.

Most state university systems leave tenure policies in the hands of their University Board of Regents. The UW system is the only system in the country in which tenure policy is enshrined in state law.

The proposed changes are being described as a simple shift of control over tenure policy from state law to Board of Regents policy; hence, the proposed changes will simply result in UW having the same tenure system as most other public university systems.

One might ask, if this is simply a change in the location of tenure policy, why is it being made in the first place?

In this case, it is absolutely essential to understand that the Wisconsin legislature has not simply decided to hand tenure policy over to the Board of Regents.

Instead, the state legislature will modify (not remove) state law, so that Section 39 of state statute will instruct the board on when they can terminate a faculty member in the following way:

Layoff due to budget or program decision: Modify current law to specify that the Board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists as under current law.

If Section 39 is adopted, the Board of Regents will always have the legal right to terminate anyone for any reason related to “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection…” And on June 5, the UW System Board of Regents did vote unanimously to add tenure protections to regents policy, but declined to request the removal of Section 39. The motion they adopted says clearly that the Board’s policy “must comply with applicable state law.”

It is for this reason that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has already declared that the proposed law would represent the loss of a viable tenure system.

Why destroy tenure?

The rationale offered to the public for transforming UW’s tenure system is cloaked in the corporate language of increased “flexibility” and more authority for campus leaders. It is accompanied by efforts to make the university function more like a corporation. 

The proposed tenure changes are accompanied by new state laws and Board of Regents policies designed to centralize power by severely curtailing faculty, staff and student rights — and more particularly, to take apart the current democratic system of checks and balances among faculty, staff, students and administrators.

For example, UW’s nationally recognized shared governance system will be gutted, shifting faculty, staff and student governance from a partnership model with the chancellor to a subordinate advisory position.

This will have an immediate impact on campus decision-making.

For example, Wisconsin legislators made a big show of freezing tuition for Wisconsin students for the next two years, but then removed all caps on student fees while watering down student oversight of fee increases and usage.

The chancellor will now have much greater power to raise student fees and use them as he or she wishes.

The new model won’t just make faculty, staff and students subservient to their chancellors — it will also make the chancellors more subservient to the politically appointed Board of Regents (16 of the board’s 18 members are governor appointees).

Now, chancellor search committees will be chaired by a board member instead of a faculty member and the majority of committee members will be non-faculty.

This centralization of power and removal of democratic checks and balances should concern all of us, but it is particularly troubling in Wisconsin, where the governor leads a national trend in sharply politicizing what were previously considered bipartisan educational and scientific enterprises.

There is a pattern

These changes have already significantly affected labor, education, women and the environment issues throughout the budget.

For example, just before the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee discussed the proposed tenure and shared governance changes, they voted (along party lines) to direct the secretary of natural resources to fire over half of all researchers in the department’s science bureau and over 60% of its science educators.

This followed an April 7, 2015, vote by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands to ban all discussions on climate change in the agency.

The budget bill similarly includes provisions removing legislative requirements to support a faculty environmental chair position at UW-Madison (Section 57) and to support conservation and mass transit on UW campuses (Section 44).

Lest anyone wonder about the politicization of the Board of Regents under Governor Scott Walker, his most recent appointment is the son of his campaign chairman.

What this all means is that the UW system’s tenure and shared governance battle has national ramifications. It represents, to my mind, broad, national efforts on the part of conservatives to roll back fundamental democratic rights and processes. It also represents efforts to defund, privatize and strip public schools of a public mandate.

Realities won’t change, but they will be hidden

AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum sums up the political consequences of the tenure battle as follows:

“Tenure is protection that ensures faculty will not be punished for doing their jobs… The truth can be extremely unpopular politically, commercially and economically. Would you want to be a climate change scientist without protection from consequences directly related to the expression of your views?… Protecting academic freedom is important to protecting the public interest. … Without academic freedom, the university will be there to serve the interests of whichever political party is in power. The regents are appointed by the governor, and they determine priorities.”

The fate dealt to state-employed scientists whose work infuriated Wisconsin’s Republican legislators is mirrored in North Carolina, where the governor is turning up the heat on UNC to show the “employability” of graduates while legislatively mandated closings occur at university centers whose research uncovers uncomfortable truths about increasing inequality and the decimation of democratic processes.

Back in Wisconsin, the proposed changes to tenure and shared governance will curtail the central mandate of public universities, as expressed in an 1894 report from a very different Wisconsin Board of Regents: the “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

The curtailment of the faculty’s ability to research, speak, write and teach freely about what is happening in our world will not change the hard truths and inequitable consequences of the political, economic and social policies being adopted in Wisconsin.

But it will make them harder to identify and address, and that, sadly, is the triumph of limiting tenure.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.