Under Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin has become one of the great laboratories of conservative governance, with a record of union-busting, abortion-restricting, voter-ID-enacting policies that are at odds with the state’s tradition of progressivism. Unlike neighboring Minnesota, which has remained far more liberal — and whose economy is doing far better than Wisconsin’s — the Badger State has seen its Republican establishment increasingly entrenched by enacting policies of fear, resentment and suspicion of the sort that were so well described in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”
Given this record, it’s not surprising that the Republican-controlled legislature should go after universities, especially with the state’s ongoing budget woes necessitating steep cuts to education. And now the state’s Joint Finance Committee has voted 12-4 to eliminate tenure protections from the state statute, add limits to faculty participation in shared governance and make it easier to fire tenured faculty in good standing for ill-defined reasons of “program modification” or “redirection” rather than the previous requirement of financial emergency (which is already being abused to get rid of entire academic units and their professors across the country). Predictably, if frighteningly, the response of the University of Wisconsin system president and chancellors of the most important campuses has been weak-kneed and not at all comforting for the rank-and-file faculty who need the support of their senior administrators if the fight to protect tenure is to have a chance.
It is extremely difficult to underestimate the impact of this move on higher education in the United States. A comparable event would be Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the aircraft controllers’ strike in 1981 by firing 12,000 workers, which completely changed the balance of power between labor on the one hand and government and corporations on the other. The breaking of the strike coincided with the rise of conservative policies as the guiding force of American governance. In the decades since, unions have become increasingly weak, as epitomized by Walker’s demolishing of collective bargaining rights for public employee unions in 2011.
One of the defining characteristics of this era is precisely the weakening of solidarity among unionized workers and between them and the greater public. The participation of workers in unions dropped from 28.3 percent in 1954 to about 11.3 percent in 2013 — a 100-year low. In just the last two years, the percentage of unionized public employees dropped 2 points, just as union leaders feared and conservatives hoped.
A similar process is already playing out nationally in academia. The share of the more than 1.5 million faculty (teachers at accredited two- and four-year colleges and universities) who are tenured or on tenure track is as low as a quarter by some counts — half the share of the 1970s and one-third of the 78 percent of the late 1960s, at the height of the postwar boom in university education. At the same time, the share of nontenured or adjunct faculty has skyrocketed to upward of 75 percent of teachers, while the number working in university administration and commanding outsize paychecks has grown massively. With the elimination of tenure, the drive to corporatize the university is reaching its end stages.
Despite its shrinking size, the tenure system continues to set the standard for college and university education and research. Tenure protects the academic freedom of professors, which gives them the power and latitude to conduct research independently of political interests. Faculty must be free of interference from outside forces, a common practice in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when wealthy donors and boards could fire faculty with little justification for expressing their views. It is commonly understood that none of academia’s core functions could occur without tenure and the assurance of academic freedom it enables.
Think about the stifling of the debate over climate change, with states such as Florida and — surprise! — Wisconsin barring scientists from discussing actual science. Or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, research on the economy, sexual health, drugs and the “war on terrorism.” The relevance of tenure, shared (as opposed to corporate-bought) governance and academic freedom has never been greater.
In particular, shared governance has been a bedrock principle of higher education, through which faculty members have meaningfully participated in the institutional governance of their universities alongside other staffers and senior managers. Together with tenure, shared governance means that faculty members can have a voice beyond the particular departments, disciplines and schools in which they teach.
It is not surprising, then, that conservatives — who have long attacked the notions of tenure, shared governance and academic freedom more broadly — would now set their eyes on Walker’s Wisconsin (it’s worth noting here that Walker did not graduate from college) as the moment to break the institution of tenure, based on the same corporate-dominated neoliberal principles that supported the near fatal weakening of unions a generation ago. In fact, as University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee English professor Richard Grusin wrote on his blog, Ragman’s Circles, the “daisy chain of Republican power” now extends from the governor to the regents he appoints, the system president they appoint and the chancellors he appoints.
There is little doubt that, should Wisconsin succeed, corporatized boards of private universities and state legislatures in the majority of Republican-governed states will jump on the bandwagon and move with lightning speed to remove tenure protections, shared governance and, ultimately, academic freedom protections from their universities.
On this 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Association of University Professors, when the principles of academic freedom were first expounded in the midst of another “great” war that history looks upon with horror, the renewed threat to tenure represents not merely an attack on the minority of academics who today enjoy the privilege but also on the bedrock principles upon which America’s system of higher education was built. If faculties across the country don’t take a very public and aggressive stand in defense of their colleagues in Wisconsin, there will be little to stop the process of complete corporatization of higher education, with all the damage to the quality and diversity of teaching, research and knowledge production that this will produce.
With the United States and the rest of the world facing so many unprecedented natural and human threats and challenges, destroying the one edifice that protects independent thinking and knowledge for its intellectual class could prove even more costly than destroying the unions upon which America’s unprecedented postwar prosperity was built.