The End of Research in Wisconsin

UW–Madison spent $9 million to keep top faculty from being poached, but the damage has been done.

Is spending money to retain brainpower a bad thing? Above, Science Hall at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison.

John Kees/Wikimedia Commons

This past June, American academia went into an uproar over Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget in Wisconsin, which not only cut $250 million from higher education, but also severely weakened shared faculty governance and effectively destroyed professor tenure at state universities. Specifically, any professor in the system—tenured or not—could be dismissed or laid off by the 18-member Board of Regents using maddeningly vague criteria: “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

This, when combined with the faculty’s diminished role in governing the university—and thus determining such things as which programs should continue, be curtailed, or get modified—basically meant that these regents—16 of whom were appointed by Walker—could fire anyone, at any time, for any reason.

Some enraged Wisconsin faculty expressed their ire in public, and possibly the most vocal of these was education policy and sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab. She found herself in the middle of a brief kerfuffle in the conservative media, in fact, after she dropped in on a Twitter hashtag for excited incoming Wisconsin freshmen and told them many top professors were going to leave. “We don’t want students 2 waste their $,” she wrote. “We are all leaving. No joke.” (“Who are you lol” was a typical response.)

When I covered the #FutureBadgers controversy back in July, I got an email from a reader concerned that Goldrick-Rab deliberately spread misinformation about the coming faculty exodus, and should have been punished for doing so. Well, dear Sir, I can now say that you were mostly wrong but also sort of right. Goldrick-Rab was speaking truthfully on her own behalf—she has since accepted an offer at Temple University. And, according to a wide-ranging investigation into public negotiation records by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she’s joined by at least five other high-profile tenured faculty members who were likewise poached.

However, it’s also true that they did not “all” leave. The Journal Sentinel reports that at least 40 of UW–Madison’s superstar faculty entertained other offers but eventually decided to stay in Madison—thanks, in no small part, to a $9 million effort to keep them.

No, they didn’t each get a $225,000 raise—although that seems like a pretty fair trade-off if you can get fired at any time for research or actions that your overlords deemed unacceptable (before they coincidentally decided to “reorient” your program). Instead, raises accounted for $726,436 altogether, and ranged from 4.34 percent to 49.68 percent.

The rest of the retention money came in the form of research grants: “research assistants, equipment, labs and other items that support faculty research programs and graduate students,” according to the Journal Sentinel. For their $9 million, the university gets to keep the $18 million in grants those stars would take with them if they left. “I can’t afford not to” retain that faculty, Chancellor Rebecca Blank reportedly told the regents in February.

So, what’s the problem here? Is spending money to retain brainpower a bad thing? Obviously not. However, as long as tenure remains so weak in Wisconsin, the regents will have to keep doling out cash to stave off poachers if they want to remain a top research university.

But how they’ll recruit new superstars to a university that can’t promise proper tenure to anyone remains a mystery. Make no mistake: If anyone thinks that these professors’ jobs are anything but gilded hollow husks of their former selves, they are deluded. (For their part, even many of the faculty who decided to stay told the Journal Sentinel they were “still nervous about the flagship university’s future.”)

What’s at stake here is the total loss of the public research university. Anyone with functioning eyes and a pulse knows that most U.S. states barely fund their universities anymore, relying instead on ballooning tuition and big donors, both private and corporate. The institution where my husband works (and where I used to work) has an academic building named Express Scripts Hall.

But the situation in Wisconsin is worse than your garden-variety corporatization. You might assume it’s no big deal for superstar researchers to be competed for, hired, and fired like executives—and for everyone else to “just get a better job” if they don’t like what they’ve got. That might be how it works at your job, if you are lucky enough to have one. I understand this impulse to look around at your own likely weak labor protections, and wonder why those obnoxious hoity-toity professors think they deserve better than you.

But academics don’t want tenure because they think they’re better or smarter than you. Academics, whether they have it or not, want some form of tenure to exist to protect the integrity of the knowledge that is produced, preserved, and disseminated.

Wisconsin professors simply do not want research limited by the whims of 18 people appointed by a governor with an openly stated anti-education agenda. And you shouldn’t, either. Think university research doesn’t affect you? You’re wrong. Hundreds of technological and social advances that you depend upon have been made thanks to the research of some brainiac at some university somewhere: what kind of cities to plan; how (and where) to alleviate poverty and hunger; what kind of diseases to treat; what kind of drugs to invent (or make obsolete); what kind of bridges and roads to build (and where). If professors are not protected from disagreeing with the agenda of their “bosses”—whether that be Dow Chemical, Gov. Walker, or President Trump—the consequences will go far beyond one person’s paycheck.

For years, higher-ed watchers have been warning against the corporatization of the American university. Students as “customers.” Amenities over academics. Loan debt of $250,000 for a transcript full of courses whose A’s no longer mean anything. For the most part, these warnings have been met by dismissal, scorn, or glee. Will anything change now? What’s happening in Wisconsin is a worst-case scenario come to life, and $9 million will do nothing to stop the demise of the integrity of research produced there—and everywhere else, too, if we don’t start electing lawmakers who actually value research.