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Chad Alan Goldberg: Tenure changes would harm UW System
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Chad Alan Goldberg: Tenure changes would harm UW System

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John Behling, vice president of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents and chairman of its Tenure Policy Task Force, attempts to square the circle in his recent column about changes in tenure at UW schools (Sunday’s Tribune).

On the one hand, Behling wishes to maintain a “strong tenure policy” and “workplace protections” for faculty. On the other hand, he insists that universities must operate like businesses in which workers may “lose their jobs for a wide variety of reasons without recourse.”

The Board of Regents can’t have it both ways; it can either uphold a strong tenure policy or it can give administrators more flexibility to fire faculty. The purpose of a strong tenure policy is precisely to limit administrators’ flexibility to reallocate resources and staff so that such decisions do not infringe on academic freedom and are based on educational considerations as determined primarily by the people most qualified to do so, namely, the faculty.

To justify the erosion of tenure, Behling endorses the canard that tenured faculty can’t lose their jobs, even when they don’t do them. This complaint has been ginned up by Republican politicians who stridently declare that higher education is rife with sinecures.

Behling is eager to tilt at this windmill even though there is no evidence that the protection of incompetent faculty is a serious or widespread problem at the University of Wisconsin. In fact, the university could already fire tenured faculty under the old tenure policy, but it had to demonstrate that the faculty member was incompetent or behaved unprofessionally or the institution was in serious financial difficulty.

That’s not a “job for life;” it’s a right to due process. Without it, faculty cannot challenge conventional wisdom, test controversial ideas, or question university administrators on academic and educational issues without fear of reprisal.

While there is no evidence that protection of incompetent faculty is a serious or widespread problem, there is clear evidence of the reprisals and interference that faculty would face without strong tenure protections.

When UW-Madison economist Steven Deller found that wages are lower in states with right-to-work laws, state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, denounced his research in March 2015 as partisan “garbage” that “wasted resources” at the university. And in November 2015, a Republican legislator in Missouri declared that a public university should not fund research on the effects of that state’s recently imposed 72-hour waiting period for abortions.

How soon until Wisconsin Republicans follow suit? The erosion of tenure will surely encourage more of this heavy-handed interference in research and teaching.

The regents can run the university like a business that hires and fires at will, or they can uphold the strong tenure standards that their predecessors proudly defended in 1894 when they stood up to an earlier attempt to trammel inquiry. The regents can’t do both.

Chad Alan Goldberg is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of the United Faculty and Academic Staff, AFT Local 223.

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