Academic freedom will be so stunted by the changes to tenure and shared governance at University of Wisconsin System campuses passed by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week that UW-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab says she’s looking for a new job.
Some faculty members say that if approved by the full Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker, the changes are an invitation for other institutions to poach UW faculty.
“They changed the conditions of our employment overnight,” said Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology. She said she is deeply disappointed in the roles UW System President Ray Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank played in exposing such foundational tenets of the university to attack through their unsuccessful pursuit of the reorganization of the university into a public authority.
As part of a broad higher education motion approved along party lines Friday, Republicans passed proposals that would allow UW faculty to be laid off to respond to budget decisions or program modification or redirection. Currently tenured faculty may be terminated only for just cause or in financial emergencies. The recommended changes to Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-2017 budget also would diminish the power of faculty, staff and students under shared governance, making their input “subordinate” to that of chancellors and the Board of Regents.
“I don’t feel like I’m going to be able to do my work in the way that I have,” Goldrick-Rab said in an interview Monday. “I don’t feel like I’ll be able to teach freely, speak freely — do the kind of critical scholarship that I do here. I’ve already done more than enough that an insecure chancellor would let me go.”
Goldrick-Rab’s research focuses on college affordability and often challenges long-held practices of institutions like the UW. A 2014 paper, for example, argued that the first two years at public universities and colleges should be free to students, an approach that would upend the current financial aid system.
Students will end up paying more for college under the Republican proposals, Goldrick-Rab said. Weakened tenure and the dilution of shared governance, coupled with provisions specifically relegating students to advisory roles in the oversight of fees, will result in increased costs, she said.
Allowing university administrators to terminate faculty upon a change in academic programming is code for empowering them to let go whomever they want, and an invitation to misuse, said Goldrick-Rab. The insertion of the word “subordinate” into provisions on shared government sets into law the interpretation that the role of faculty, staff and students is advisory, something she said she has heard UW administrators articulate many times before. In the past, she and others fought back against that diminished role. “Now it’s in state law,” Goldrick-Rab said.
Blank and Cross supported the proposal to make the UW System a public authority, a move they said would give the institution needed autonomy. Creation of a public authority, dropped officially as an option by the Joint Finance Committee Friday, would have required the deletion of Chapter 36 of state statutes, where law governing the university is found. Blank and Cross have made frequent public assurances that tenure and shared governance could (and would) be protected through Board of Regents policy.
Cross, joined by Board of Regents vice president Regina Millner on Friday, reiterated the intent to incorporate tenure into policy, pointing to the board’s scheduled meeting on June 4 — 5.
David Vanness, an associate professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health, has launched an online petition asking regents to restore tenure to its previous status. But Goldrick-Rab said she is uncertain that regents have the power to supersede state law. What’s more, she said, whatever the wording of tenure rights, it is meaningless if faculty are subject to termination under the guise of program changes.
Goldrick-Rab said her colleagues around the UW System are talking privately about leaving. Chuck Rybak, an associate English professor at UW-Green Bay, commented on Twitter: “That cheering you hear is Universities around the country making wish lists of UW talent.”
The Chronicle of High Education quoted Noel Radomski, director of UW-Madison’s WISCAPE, calling the joint financial proposals “a seismic change.”
Goldrick-Rab was demoralized that Cross and Blank issued statements Friday thanking legislators for their work to reduce funding cuts to the university from $300 million to $250 million.
“(Legislators) had literally shattered their employees and students and they stand up and say ‘thank you.’ It’s cowardly,” she said. “We’re the laughingstock of the nation.” ￼
I don’t’ feel like I’ll be able to teach freely, speak freely – do the kind of critical scholarship that I do here. I’ve already done more than enough that an insecure chancellor would let me go.” Sara Goldrick-Rab, UW-Madison professor
￼I don’t feel like I’ll be able to teach freely, speak freely – do the kind of critical scholarship that I do here. I’ve already done more than enough that an insecure chancellor would let me go.” Sara Goldrick-Rab, UW-Madison professor