My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
The University of Wisconsin System is an integral part of the success of our state. It is not only a primary source of higher education for Wisconsin’s youth, but it is also an economic engine that impacts almost every area of the state. For these reasons, and many others, passions run high whenever changes happen within the system.
That passion is running high right now with the universities’ faculties, as many have passed, or are considering, resolutions expressing their lack of confidence in the leadership of the university system. It started with the faculty of UW-Madison. Then UW-Green Bay and UW-La Crosse followed suit. UW-Eau Claire and other universities are considering doing the same.
While these resolutions do not carry any legal or formal weight, they are an expression of the faculties of those universities. What sparked these resolutions was a change in state law regarding tenure for faculty and the fallout from that change, but the spark set flame to some tinder that has been drying for some time.
Up until a few months ago, Wisconsin was the only state in the union to enshrine tenure protection for UW faculty in the state’s statutes. The Legislature wrote those protections out of the statutes and tasked the UW System leadership with creating tenure protections as a matter of university policy. UW System President Ray Cross and the UW Board of Regents have done just that, but the faculties are not satisfied with the resulting policy. In creating the tenure policy, the UW faculty demanded that tenure protect faculty at all costs — even if their department was eliminated. The Board of Regents’ policy allows for universities to terminate tenured faculty if the university leadership decides to eliminate the position due to educational considerations, comparative costeffectiveness, budgetary concerns and other factors. The faculty wants the university to only consider educational considerations.
Essentially, the faculty wants guaranteed jobs for life, paid for by taxpayers and students, even if there is no longer any justification for their jobs, and even if that means sacrificing other budget priorities like new programs, facilities and safety. The faculty wants tenure to completely insulate them from anything else happening in the world. The Board of Regents wants tenure to protect academic freedom, but allow for universities to take a more holistic approach to staffing decisions.
But the underlying issue is much deeper than just the battle over tenure. At the core is friction over the role of the UW System and the growing frustration that UW has drifted too far from its responsibilities to the citizens of Wisconsin. For decades, the cost of attending UW System universities has risen far more quickly than inflation or the wages of Wisconsinites. At the same time, students and their families, myself included, witness incredible waste on campus in the form of extravagant facilities, required courses of dubious value and courses taught by teaching assistants while professors are unavailable.
While UW faculty are expressing their lack of confidence in their leadership, many citizens of the state they are supposed to serve have lost confidence in the UW System as a whole. Meanwhile, many UW faculty members want impregnable job protections while being paid by taxes and tuition from students and families who enjoy no such protections. If those students lose their jobs, they still have to pay their taxes. They still have to pay off their student loans.
The strength and success of the UW System is incredibly important to Wisconsin, but the definition of success is subject to debate. There is a balance that must be struck in striving for multiple objectives within the reasonable capacity of Wisconsinites to pay.