Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Clearing the way

The attack on tenure and shared governance in the UW System is now attracting national attention. A coalition of twenty-one scholarly organizations issued an open letter denouncing the proposed changes. Others have since followed suit, including the AAUP. The higher ed media recognizes it for the signal event that it is. And the national political media has jumped at the opportunity to write more stories about Scott Walker, taking a subsidiary and almost prurient interest in the fate of the University of Wisconsin, which now takes the place of public-sector unions as foil to Walker’s all-conquering political persona.

Closer to home, the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel issued a startlingly strong defense of tenure and shared governance on Friday. The party line on the proposed changes—which has been repeated by everyone from the members of JFC to the Regents to Ray Cross and Becky Blank—is that tenure protections are simply being moved from statute into Board policy. Many of us have been pointing out, to precious little avail, that this is a bit like saying that your shield will continue to protect you when your counterpart has traded in its sword for a weaponized drone. It is, frankly, amazing that the JS called bullshit here, and that they further decried Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’s “willful misreading of the whole idea of academic tenure.” To be sure, the editorial board is not nearly so kind to shared governance, which it professes to exalt while in the next breath opining that chancellors “need control over the major decisions on their campuses including what courses of study are offered.” But for its defense of tenure, and its vindication of reality in the face of willful and near-universal obfuscation from both legislators and UW administrators, the JS deserves major credit.

Largely lost in the present furor is attention to the state disinvestment that has precipitated the tenure crisis in the first place. The JFC omnibus motion attacks the UW System from all sides. And while it’s hard to argue with people’s devoting their efforts to protecting tenure and shared governance, this has shifted attention decisively away from the massive $250 million cut to the System proposed for the next two years. For all the pugnacity of the JS‘s stance on tenure, there was not a peep about money. Even the sharply worded resolution passed by the UW-Madison faculty senate last week limits itself to a call for legislators and administrators to remove “non-fiscal language” from the JFC omnibus.

The irony of this should be obvious: ideological animus notwithstanding, the major purpose of getting rid of tenure is to clear the way for more cuts. It is an absolute certainty that Wisconsin Republicans intend to continue cutting state appropriations to the UW System for the foreseeable future. This is clear when Robin Vos asks, “[D]o we need to have every major on every campus, or should we specialize more or do a more collaborative process?” (Never mind that an administrator’s efficiency is a student’s lack of opportunity; see Chuck Rybak today for more.) It is clear when our newest Regent, the son of Walker’s preeminent political patron and gubernatorial campaign chair, talks immediately about cutting degree programs and says, “I think eliminating a campus is probably a pretty high mountain to climb,” relishing the challenge as much as lamenting the impediment.

Regardless of what happens with tenure and shared governance, the cuts are coming. They will be devastating, and they will be followed by further cuts in future biennia. Ultimately, saving the UW System will require more than the preservation of tenure and shared governance. It will require a reversal of the long-standing downward trend in state funding. And it will require a mechanism for ensuring that increases in state funding benefit students in the form of reductions in tuition. That is to say, it will require a management structure that undoes the present moves to concentrate power, CEO-like, in the hands of chancellors, who, among other things, can recoup lost tuition revenue by unilaterally increasing other fees.

For the moment, the attack on tenure and shared governance is performing its tactical purpose admirably, distracting attention almost completely from this year’s $250 million cut. But the JFC omnibus motion is a multipronged attack that calls for a correspondingly multifaceted defense, of which saving tenure and shared governance is but a single part.

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