My Full Interview with the International Business Times

On June 26, I was interviewed by Sarah Berger for the International Business Times concerning the attack on tenure and faculty governance in the University of Wisconsin system by Governor Walker and the state Republicans. Berger used a small part of what I said in the published report (which is fine, because many others were interviewed). Here is rest of the interview: 

SB: What is your stance on Scott Walker’s proposal to remove tenure in the university system from state statute, leaving it  up to the Board of Regents, which has 16 members appointed by the governor subject to the confirmation of the State senate?  Also, what is your position on Walker’s proposal to change state law regarding shared governance? Do you think this change will discourage recruitment of potentially valuable faculty members to the University? 

AA: Wisconsin is unique among states in upholding the institution of tenure in statute. Some see that uniqueness as an argument in favor of taking it out of statute. I disagree. Tenure protections set in law tell the rest of the country that Wisconsin is committed to upholding academic freedom and sees tenure as a crucial asset in attracting the best professionals around the world and keeping them here in Wisconsin. Why shouldn’t we be a model for the nation? Retaining the same tenure language in Board of Regents policy is essential if it is taken out of statute. Still, the citizens of Wisconsin should be very concerned about these developments. The state is already losing some of its finest faculty, which means an exodus of research moneys from the state. It will lose a great deal more if tenure protections are removed or weakened. If economic and social development are valuable things to Wisconsinites, then retention of strong tenure language is essential.  

Many observers critical of this move by the governor and legislature are relieved that the Board of Regents is adopting the original tenure language. However, there is some troubling language in all this concerning an expansion of the reasons for terminating faculty positions, language that allows the administration to “…terminate a tenured faculty member, or layoff or terminate a probationary faculty member prior to the end of his or her appointment, when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” This language severely weakens tenure protections and will cause the  system to lose a lot of fine faculty members to other states that continue to observe strong tenure protections.

Remember that tenure is not a guarantee of a job, contrary to the rhetoric we often hear. Tenure is about due process, making sure that faculty are not dismissed based on unpopular ideas, the whims of administrators, or the wishes of wealthy donors. Tenure is only earned after years of rigorous evaluation and assessment. Many talented people are in fact denied tenure. Moreover, tenure give faculty an investment in their jobs, a strong incentive to stay, in light of the fact that a university position often earns less income than a comparable position in the private sector.  

SB: Another colleague talked about the negative psychological effect that the proposal will have on the faculty and the university as a whole. Would you agree with that? 

AA: The psychological effects of this are palpable.  Morale is down across the system. The faculty here put in long hours, meeting with students not only in the classroom, but individually, working with them on projects, arranging internships and independent studies, advising and providing career advice, writing letters of recommendation. When not teaching and working with students, faculty are engaging their research projects and the campus and larger community in service. I know of no faculty member who works less than forty hours a week. Act 10 hit faculty hard. And now they are being asked to absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, which will affect families across the state. On top of this, faculty are having to endure the insult of being told they are overpaid and underworked. So, yes, it is having a damaging impact. All this is also having an impact on the reputation of the system worldwide. I hear it from faculty at other institutions.  Wisconsin is increasingly sounding like a place that talented professionals should avoid. 

SB: Do you think there is potential for the proposal to cause a chilling effect on academic free speech? Don Downs suggests this in his piece in Politico.  Do you think tenure protected professors feel as if they have more freedom to choose how and what they teach? 

AA: Weakening of tenure and faculty governance does carry a chilling effect. Faculty become concerned that if their research projects or teaching methods offend powerful special interests, especially those with financial ties to the institution, that positions and departments may be put in jeopardy. With these pressures, faculty self-censor. They may be hesitant to pursue this or that research interest which may be of great benefit to the larger community, interests such as environmental and labor concerns. The impact is hard to gauge, but it is certainly greater than zero.

SB: Do you believe the proposal, if passed, will affect non-tenure track and non-tenured professors? If yes, how so?  

AA: Very much. The loss or weakening of tenure and faculty governance puts non-tenure track and probationary faculty in a precarious position. Tenured faculty can operate from a position of strength and protect their junior colleagues who do not have tenure. There are administrators who look out for the interests of our junior colleagues, but in a system without strong protections for academic freedom and faculty governance, depending on the good will of administrators is not the security that a successful public university should afford to its employees, particularly if you want them to be about the pursuit of the truth. Non-tenure track and nontenured faculty are professionals, and if the state is concerned with keeping the best people in Wisconsin, then it shouldn’t weaken the traditional protections all faculty have enjoyed in the state. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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