Friday, June 12, 2015

On Ending Statutory Tenure Protection At The University Of Wisconsin

I confess that after reading this New York Times story about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker working to eliminate statutory tenure protections for University of Wisconsin professors, I was less than impressed by the overall hullabaloo being presently raised, principally but not exclusively by those whom it directly affects. For instance, there seems to be a great deal of panic over possible attrition to other universities:
“It’ll be impossible for us to attract and retain people if we’re the only one that has such a weak protection of tenure,” said Donald Moynihan, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been at the institution for 10 years and was among hundreds of faculty members in recent days to sign a letter opposing the changes.
A committee of lawmakers last week approved along party lines a proposal that would remove the notion of tenure in the university system from state statute, leaving the sensitive matter to the state’s Board of Regents, which oversees the system’s 13 four-year universities and some 180,000 students.
“The reality is that we are not eliminating tenure,” said Senator Sheila Harsdorf, a Republican, adding that she believed the effort had been misunderstood as a broad condemnation of tenure.

Wisconsin is rare for including tenure provisions for professors in its statutes rather than in policies set by regents or similar boards. “We are directing the Board of Regents to develop a policy, just as there is in so many states,” Ms. Harsdorf said. “It’s just a matter of recognizing the ability for chancellors and campuses to administer and manage their operations.”
So the overall level of panic of mass exodus seems entirely baseless, given that the universities such professors would be headed to have exactly the same level of protection as what is being proposed. (More concerning is language about "shared governance", in which "faculty members would still advise leaders on academic and educational activities, and on personnel matters, but that advice would be 'subordinate' to the powers of the board, president and chancellors.") So it was interesting to hear another perspective from the conservative National Review, whose David French peers in:
As someone who’s litigated many, many academic freedom cases, I have profoundly mixed feelings about this move. First, I know and understand that tenure is designed to guarantee freedom, to prevent political pressures from impacting scholarship. It’s designed to preserve academic independence. In fact, tenure has protected a number of outspoken conservative professors (including some of my clients), men and women who would have been fired long ago without tenure protections.

At the same time, however, academic independence is a fiction. In the real world, leftist groupthink dominates academic departments, conservatives are easily weeded out before tenure – mostly through the hiring process itself – and even many (if not most) tenured dissenting professors live “in the closet” to avoid the social and professional consequences of public disagreement on key cultural or scientific issues. The result isn’t freedom but instead permanently entrenched ideological conformity.

Yet this same overwhelming conformity means that the immediate consequence of lifting tenure protections wouldn’t be greater diversity but even worse ideological persecution as the few conservative professors would face hostile departments stripped of the bulk of their legal protections. ...
 If stronger statutory protection actually yielded more ideological diversity, I would expect it would have manifested itself by now. I eagerly await evidence for or against this proposition.

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