Tag Archives: tenure

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.