Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

UW tenure: as little as possible

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Tenure weakened in Wisconsin.”  So says the national AAUP in response to the UW System’s now-official policies on tenure, faculty layoff, and post-tenure review, which were adopted by the Board of Regents this past Thursday, unaltered in their essentials from the problematic drafts issued by the Tenure Policy Task Force in January.  At the Regents meeting there was much talk of difficult decisions and harsh new realities.  The first casualty of the new policies, it seems, is the pretense that they might be consistent with nationally recognized standards.

The formal decline of tenure in Wisconsin has coincided with renewed media interest in faculty pay.  System President Ray Cross said in an interview earlier last week that, while changes to tenure “are causes to make faculty nervous…the real reason I think faculty are being lured away is compensation packages.”  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on faculty retention efforts at UW-Madison, detailing the tens of thousands of dollars in raises and additional research funds that a handful of faculty have negotiated in the face of job offers from elsewhere.  The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the end of tenure will bring a financial windfall for UW professors near and far.

Indeed, the elephant in the room last Thursday was money, particularly the Regents’ apparent unwillingness or inability to advocate for more of it in the face of legislative slashing and burning.  The overarching goal of the new policies, we were repeatedly told, is to give chancellors flexibility.  Flexibility, of course, is code for a host of austerity measures predicated on the consolidation of power in administrative hands.  It can also be read here as a byword for Regental buck-passing: far from standing up to legislators, the Regents have turned around and told chancellors to stand up to faculty, all while adopting policies that create a glide path for further cuts.  The time to draw a line in the sand was yesterday; instead, our new flexibility-enhanced chancellors will be able to use program prioritization and other means to enact a kind of financial emergency in slow motion.

Conspicuously absent from Thursday’s discussion was any suggestion from the new policies’ proponents that the changes will help the UW System regain the confidence of legislators.  Rather, endless austerity was presented as a given, with faculty chided for their lack of business sense.  The obvious cynicism of this line of attack didn’t prevent some faculty from rising to the bait, telling reporters of their long experience issuing layoff notices to academic staff.  The divide-and-conquer reflex was evinced by UW-Madison’s chancellor, as well.  In her prepared remarks and subsequent blog post, she spoke of the “different needs” of the various UW System campuses, a framing that meshes entirely too well with that of the right-wing Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which in a recent manifesto questioned whether tenure is needed at every UW campus.

Tenure has been modified, shared governance curtailed.  Local media has turned its normalizing gaze to outliers at the very top of the faculty pay spectrum.  The flagship’s chancellor appears poised to throw the rest of the System under the bus.  Campuses are struggling to absorb the $250 million in cuts handed down in the current cycle.  And with negotiations over the next biennial budget less than a year away, the Board of Regents has adopted policies that will make it politically easier for legislators to cut again.

Welcome to the 21st century, indeed.


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