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.


  1. Government used to be about investing. Now it’s about divesting. That is apparently all that Republicans think of America’s future.

    Of course I say Republicans but that would mistakenly imply that they are still a political party which is untrue. They are a business catering to oligarchy. And divesting in America is what the oligarchs want.

    Being short sighted and greedy they believe it possible for American business to survive without America. All that we’ve been, are and could be. They think that because they don’t have answers, we don’t.

    Throw the bums out. Government, business, education, religion, and science. Let them take Texas and start a new Confederacy. They’d be the easiest global competitor to beat.

  2. I suspect that this is a move that our own governor would make if he were in a better place (for him), but like so many of those Tea Party types, he seems to be using the 2nd Amendment to shoot himself in the foot. I see Brownback, Walker and Pence engaging in activities that just make people mad. Kansas had a half billion in excess. Now they’re broke. Walker is out to do in the U of W and other outrages, and Pence is an empty suit who, well, you know the rest.

    It’s really interesting to see Illinois’ new Tea Party governor, and how the veto-proof Democratic legislature is intent on handing him his head. Instead of being political, and realizing that he needs to find ways to make peace, Rauner is only making things worse for himself. In a recent vote regarding the Rauner agenda, he got zero (!) votes, with the Republicans voting “present”. I’m taking bets on the lynch date.

  3. You are absolutely correct about Scott Walker being at war with higher Ed. Historically the state, being farmers and laborer so, looked at Madison as a center of kooks, drugs and dangerous people who bomb public property (re. Sterling Hall). Walkers own inability to finish his degree and the huge turnout of university students in his initial attack on public unions left a bad taste in his mouth. This is pure retribution. The budget and now the position on tenure comes not from an informed position, but pure anger. He is a dangerous man!

  4. I just returned from a visit to WI. There are already pictures in the paper of research labs being boxed up and moved to the Univ of Minn. It has already begun. Walker is an absolute MORON. He has that blank vacant stare…. something wrong with this guy.

  5. This is what all fascists do. They cannot prevail without grossly distorting the truth, and a robust intelligencia won’t let them get by with it. The first people to go in these horrendous systems are the professors who shine a light on the nefarious actions of sociopathic and corrupt corporate criminals. Look at how the truth about climate change has been manipulated by those who wish to profit by the rape of the world. Look at how the poor have been marginalized and demonized by increasingly rapacious capitalists. Scott Walker and the Kochs care nothing about truth, justice, ethics or democracy. What’s more, their right wing think tanks and lobbying groups know exactly what they are doing and have for several decades now.

  6. I’m sorry, I just read that Illinois has a tea party governor and couldn’t stop laughing.

  7. Thanks for addressing the tenure issue. It is so misunderstood and is more important than ever given the oligarchs’ and ideologues’ zeal to control public sentiments, information, and policymaking on science, health, agriculture, the environment, history, religion, and more.

    In case this seems hard to believe, our own legislature has denied legislation for several years which would require the state board of education and local schools to provide medically ACCURATE information in health, sex education, and AIDS prevention instruction.

    There are federal and state policymakers who want to regulate (control) higher ed. in much the same manner as they are regulating K-12.

    Our higher ed. institutions attract students world-wide because they are the envy of the world. But if we want to limit American creativity and superiority in various curricular disciplines, in research, and in teaching techniques, eliminating tenure is a powerful way to do so.

  8. Paul, from


    “Need proof that Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner is no moderate? Look no further than the billionaire’s “charitable” giving to see where his true priorities lie: as has been recently exposed, Rauner “has given more than $2 million to extreme right-wing causes and groups associate with the Tea Party and the billionaire Koch brothers.””

    “This is the same Bruce Rauner who likes to tout his “everyman” credentials by wearing an $18 watch and driving an old camper van, while also spent $100,000 on a single parking spot at a Chicago condo building and bragging about his status among the wealthiest .01% in the country. Over the past 10 years, Rauner’s given millions to Koch-backed groups and other extreme right-wing groups that want to move the state and the country backwards on the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare, abortion, marriage equality, climate change, and the environment.”

  9. My brother-in-law was dean of the dental school at the University of North Carolina and conducted immunological cancer research there. He has an excellent international reputation and is in constant demand for lectures worldwide. He is now a researcher and professor at the University of Alberta. Why? North Carolina does not value its universities. Researchers and professors are leaving this sinking ship in droves. Our best and brightest will not stay at underfunded American universities in states where their value is not appreciated. Universities in other countries will be the beneficiaries of this neglect. Reputations and respect for American universities are sliding and will not be easily repaired. This will have long-term effects on medical and other types of research, leaving the U.S. well behind other advanced nations. Is this what we want for American education?

  10. I wish I could sympathize with these comments, but I can’t. I worked quite successfully in a Big Ten flagship University for 20 years, then became a dean of science at IUPUI, expecting to be able to build a school that was excellent in both teaching and research. I soon found that Indiana’s two flagships wanted none of that. IUPUI seemed to exist as a target of abuse by IU, Purdue, and the HEC. It was then I realized that US public higher education is a caste system, with the flagships at the top looking down on everyone else. I believe Walker’s actions are a response to the snobbish elitism displayed by the flagships, who mistakenly think they are better (or more “special”) than other institutions because of their research prestige. There is a real difference between the desire to be elite (the best you can be) and elitism (the view that your presumed superiority entitles you to be condescending and contemptuous of others). The flagships embrace the latter.

    UWM is not going to go under, despite all the wringing of hands. It will remain strong in research. Faculty leave universities every day for positions that they think fit them better. Those who leave because they think their research will be destroyed will be replaced by others who will keep the research programs just as strong. There are plenty of top-notch candidates out there, and perhaps they will have the good sense to concentrate on being elite instead of elitist. That will give the university a better reputation than one based on elitism.

    I’d also like to remind everyone that not all the students at public flagships are the best and brightest, only the same small subset that you see at other public universities. Regardless, all deserve a quality education. Right now, most of them get it from low-salaried adjunct professors who should be paid as much as the research professors because of the multi-millions of tuition dollars they generate. Instead, a lot of those dollars are used to pay the research professors. This is not, by the way, going to be cured by the more money, more money, more money plea to the state to keep doing the same old things. Some changes need to be made first that justify higher state funding.

    Finally, whatever you think of Walker-and I share some of your views– he did not try to abolish tenure. As I understand it, he wanted tenure removed from the state constitution and made a purview of the university, like other Big Ten schools.

    If you doubt what I say here, I have a list of books and research papers to which I can refer you to judge for yourself.

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