The Tenure Apocalypse

“Jobs for life” are rare and mostly fictitious. Attacks on them obscure the real problems of higher ed.

Wisconsin Governor and exploratory GOP presidential hopeful Scot
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, talking here to the media after speaking at the Freedom Summit on May 9, 2015, in Greenville, South Carolina, has put forth a proposal that would remove tenure at public universities from the current state law.

Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images

Right now, college professors are taking a real beating at the state level. There was the state senator in North Carolina who wanted to codify a 4-4 teaching load. Then there was the one in Iowa who wanted to let students vote their “worst” professors out of a job. Now for the trifecta, there’s Scott Walker’s drive to undermine (some say “destroy”) professor tenure and shared governance at Wisconsin’s state universities.

The proposal, recently approved by the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee along Republican party lines, would remove tenure at public universities from the current state law. Instead, the fate of Wisconsin’s professors would be decided by an 18-member board of regents, who will now be able to fire tenured faculty under disturbingly broad criteria: “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

Proponents of the change, such as Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, dismiss the ensuing faculty uproar as “panic” and “sensationalism,” pointing out that most state statutes don’t have tenure protection codified. Don’t be fooled. He’s being disingenuous. Here’s why.

Walker’s changes are worrying for two reasons. One is that 16 of the 18 regents—the same regents who will decide how easy it should be to fire professorsare appointed by the same education-hating governor who wanted to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin budget. (He was talked down to a mere $250 million.) Second, the proposal would codify the faculty as officially “subordinate” to campus chancellors in making the aforementioned decisions about “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

With a faculty largely powerless against a chancellor anointed by regents, who themselves are the lackeys of a governor openly hostile to education, there would be little to stop the University of Wisconsin from “redirecting” itself into becoming a professional football franchise with frats and a waterpark (indoors, I presume), “modifying” all degree programs into vocational training for a docile workforce, and “discontinuing” any program that acknowledged man-made climate change (which Walker disputes) or any faculty who are pro-choice (which Walker is not).

The New York Times ran a scathing editorial in opposition to Walker’s plan earlier this month, but academics—especially those in Wisconsin—have been livid for much longer than that. UW–Green Bay English professor Chuck Rybak has been documenting the struggle brilliantly and meticulously since February. This is how he feels now:

Some, such as Rybak, are resigned to having their departments poached while others are ready to abscond: One of UW–Madison’s most well-known public intellectuals, education policy scholar and sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, recently told Inside Higher Education that the new regulations felt like “a death in the family”; because UW is “no longer a great place to work,” she says she’ll begin entertaining offers from other institutions she has heretofore ignored.

Vos, meanwhile, dismisses faculty claims of assault on academic freedom, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that “it seems to be more about job protection … it’s this idea a tenured professor could decide they don’t have to show up, or keep up with ideas in their field.”

That’s a popular sentiment, but it demonstrates how little he, and the general public, actually knows about tenure. Most people have a vague inkling that it was created a bajillion years ago (sort of correct) so that professors could not be fired for clashing—politically, socially, or religiously—with the trustees or large donors of their institutions. (This occurred with enough regularity that many institutions adopted informal policies around the turn of the 20th century, and formal ones in the 1940s.)

However, this seems to be where the understanding stops. For the love of God, tenure does not mean you have a job for life no matter what you do or how horrible you are. Tenured professors get fired for just (and unjust) cause all the time: sexual harassment, tweeting too excitedly, being “rude.” Firing someone with tenure simply involves a modicum of due process and just cause. If you don’t show up for work? That’s just cause. And if you don’t keep publishing, you might not be fired outright, but you also won’t be promoted to full professor—a slight major enough that professors often quit over it.

But here’s the thing that Walker, and Vos—and probably the general public—just doesn’t seem to get: To the majority of American faculty, quibbling about tenure is irrelevant, because they are ineligible for it and always will be. “How do you prove that tenure is necessary when a majority of your colleagues have been working without it?” asks long-term “visiting” professor John Warner in Inside Higher Ed. “Where will tenure be in 10 years?” asks Josh Boldt on Vitae. “No adjunct professor should care.”

Suggesting that someone who makes $24,000 a year and holds office hours out of her 1992 Geo Metro care about tenure is like asking me to get bent out of shape about import tax on gold Lamborghinis (I will not). The only people willing to go to the mat already have tenure, are about to get it, or—in the style of the Republican who votes against his own financial interests—believe they’ll have it someday (they will not). Tenure is already a feeble, decrepit institution with few left to fight for it, and this without any help from Scott Walker.

Instead of fighting about tenure, perhaps we should decide what the post-tenure university should look like. Out of extreme cynicism comes extreme pragmatism, and now is the best time (possibly the only time) for professors to maintain the approximation of an intellectual vision rather than the gleeful strip mall–ification of some pandering governor or executive slumming it as an administrator.

If the few remaining tenured professors of the future willingly detenured themselves before some god-awful new regulation came for them, it is possible that the academy could rebuild itself together with a new, post-tenure system. This system might be built in part on infinitely renewable seven-year contracts contingent only on research, teaching, and service, with academic freedom codified.

It is possible that this new system could improve on the current one because it could protect academic freedom at all ranks, even for the lowly adjuncts, who under these rules would also be eligible for multiyear contracts. Faculty of all ranks would have a vested interest in the institution, reflected in their voting power on decisions regarding curricular and program choices. But please take a moment to grieve for those poor associate deans and provosts, whose jobs would no longer be necessary because of the market forces at work from all that shared governance.

However, just as it’s hard for me to fight for tenure because I’ll never have it, it’s easy for me to ask others to relinquish theirs, a sacrifice I will never have to make. I wouldn’t be suggesting such a radical change if I didn’t recognize Wisconsin as a terrifying bellwether. Walker is doing this because it’s going to make him look good running for president. The people who agree with him are too numerous to mention. Some of these people make good points. Some do not. But they’re all fighting about the wrong thing. The question isn’t if or when tenure will be crippled even further. It’s whether the American university can survive with the alternatives currently poised to replace it.

Because here’s the Walkerian vision for American higher education, one already past infancy: a fully corporatized “university,” staffed by armies of temps. It won’t matter that most of the senior faculty are long dead; they’ll still be lumbering around as digital zombies in the online courses that both ensured their obsolescence and preserved their legacy. (A MOOC will never whine for tenure!)

Even in a worst-case scenario, tenure will not die altogether. Every program will retain one or two real, live, capital-P professors, who maintain all departmental power despite their status in the extreme minority. Beginning academics, mentored by this tenured few, will set out assuming they, too, will join their infinitesimal ranks, and thus they won’t speak out for a more inclusive alternative—until it’s too late, and the only job they can find is doing the grading on some MOOC for free because now academia, too, pays in “exposure.” They will be disillusioned and embittered, but the targets of their bitterness will be those few tenured stooges, and not the system that put them in place as distractions from the real catastrophe.

Yes, there are problems with tenure, but they are not the largely fictitious ones championed by right-wing jerks. The problem with tenure is not that it allows “elites” (who make $50,000 a year) a “job for life” (nope). It’s that too few people have it so there’s nobody left to fight for it, and for the academic freedom it promises. What few tenured academics remain are handed just enough disproportionate power to maintain just enough acrimony that everybody is too busy being at each other’s throats to mind the store.