An Open Letter to the UW Madison Faculty Senate

The following is an open letter from Professor Nancy Kendall to members of the University of Wisconsin at Madison Faculty Senate, which met today to consider a proposed new tenure and layoff policy in the wake of the passage in July of the infamous Act 55 removing tenure and shared governance protections from statute.  In a footnote Professor Kendall writes: “For the record, I was a member of the Ad-Hoc tenure committee, and I believe there was an honest effort made by all members of the committee to bridge the gap between Act 55 and AAUP tenure guidelines. Unfortunately, the gap may not be bridgeable without radical action taken by the Chancellor and Board of Regents. This, the letter makes clear, should not be expected.”

Dear colleagues,

A letter written by [UW Madison Chancellor] Becky Blank was recently leaked to the news. This letter is important for a number of reasons. First, it clearly indicates that faculty, staff, students, and others who argued that Act 55 would not simply move existing tenure policy from state legislation into Board of Regents policy (as our leaders were claiming) were correct.

The attacks waged against people who spoke out about the consequences of Act 55’s passage need to be acknowledged and addressed—through public apologies where warranted, and through acknowledgement from those of us who have benefited from their efforts to educate us (my own heartfelt thanks to Sara Goldrick-Rab, Dave Vanness, Karma Chavez, Chad Goldberg, Jason Lee, Leonora Hanson, and Eleni Schirmer, among others on our campus).

But, this is now in the past. The window of opportunity where we as faculty could fight to maintain a legal right to tenure and shared governance has closed. Once the law passed, decisions about tenure and shared governance legally moved out of our hands.

We were told not to worry because we would continue to have a key voice at the policymaking table. But recent events, including Blank’s letter, indicate that faculty voice is to be curtailed, managed, and controlled when it does not match our leaders’ goals.

Indeed, the letter indicates that Chancellor Blank has employed the following rationale in her approach to tenure and shared governance policy:

1) UW-Madison does not have to and should not work in solidarity with other campuses. We are unique and will have special exemption from the policies that other campuses may have to endure.

2) Pre-Act 55 UW system tenure and shared governance policies are stronger than current AAUP standards in some respects, and it is reasonable for administrators to gain added “flexibilities” by lowering our previous standards to national averages.

3) Those who disagree with this approach and argue for “more extreme policies” need to be contained so that Blank’s and the UC’s “reasonable” approach can succeed. This argument, made twice in the letter, is particularly interesting, as the “more extreme policy” demands are simply a demand for the continuation of the tenure and shared governance policies that previously existed.

Education policymaking is always a political process. Decisions about how to respond to policy proposals are also political. As have administrators before her, Blank appears to have made some serious political miscalculations. Perhaps she thought that she understood Wisconsin politics but did not. Perhaps she was duped by [UW President Raymond] Cross and legislators. Perhaps she felt her approach was the only politically viable path to maintaining tenure, especially given Cross’s support for the changes. But her calculations were off. She told us Act 55 wouldn’t fundamentally change tenure or shared governance. She was wrong. She told us that UW-Madison would be able to make its own tenure policy, unencumbered by the System policies foisted on other campuses. She was wrong.

In her letter, Blank says that some “less-than-satisfied” faculty may mobilize more faculty against the “responsible” tenure policy process that she has been trying to shepherd through. It is reasonable to ask whether we, as faculty members, think her “reasonable approach” is the best political calculation. So far, she does not appear to be reading the political winds of continued tenure correctly, and there is little reason to believe those winds have changed recently.

But educational policy is not only political. It is also moral. The political calculation that the best way to preserve tenure was to stay quiet and try to appease the legislature and then Ray Cross, while arguing for UW-Madison’s singular importance, did not work. But it was also immoral. Our campus is tied to the system. If the system suffers, so do we. If the system institutes unfair labor systems, we are all affected, regardless of how “special” we think we are.

We are part of a system, but we have not acted as such, believing ourselves to be insulated by our “special” status as the state’s flagship university. This is elitist, it is morally shameful, and it is political suicide. None of us is more deserving of tenure than our colleagues at every other campus in this system. That is and must be the core of the tenure argument: every faculty member needs tenure in order to be able to teach, conduct research, and communicate our ideas freely, without political or administrative pressure. When some faculty lose tenure, the moral basis for arguing for tenure is undermined. Indeed, instead of throwing faculty at other campuses under the bus, or arguing that tenure is only important to help retain “star” faculty on our campus, we should be working with colleagues across the state to expand tenure protections to employees who currently conduct teaching and research on our campuses without these protections.

Similarly, Ray Cross’s and Becky Blank’s stances that tenure and shared governance, in their previous forms, were not in administrators’ best interest and could be pared back a bit was an immoral (and undemocratic) stance. In their effort to gain more “flexibility” through centralized control over decision-making, they allowed the legislature to pass a law, unimpeded, that placed the power to decide tenure and shared governance policy outside of their, and our, direct remits.

We now have a decision in front of us. What do we, as a faculty body, do? Our power is deeply limited. Our voice, legally, holds no weight. Do we calculate that, politically, we are best-served by keeping our heads down and hoping (against evidence) that our leaders are correctly assessing what comes next and want the same things we do? Or do we stop calculating and recognize that the only power we have is in speaking truth and in standing for principles that we believe strengthen the University of Wisconsin?

We all have different principles. My own are that we need to be standing in solidarity with other UW campuses, and making clear, reasoned, and impassioned arguments for the centrality of a robust tenure system and democratic shared governance processes to the quality and the values of education at UW. Others hold other principles they feel are worth fighting for—fair labor treatment for all UW employees, transparent decision-making, honoring commitments to the state of Wisconsin as it public flagship university. Let’s lay out our principles, discuss and debate them, and see what policy stances they lead us to as a faculty body.

Lastly, if we want to fight for robust forms of tenure and shared governance, we need to do so here at home as well. The administration has introduced a raft of new policies with little faculty input, including, for example, removing the cap on the percentage of out-of-state students we will accept, and stating that departments should no longer receive FTE credit for teaching graduate students who work for the university (i.e., our TAs and PAs). Perhaps this event can remind us that to value tenure and shared governance, we must each put some time and energy into collaborating with each other to enact and celebrate these values in our daily university practice.

3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the UW Madison Faculty Senate

  1. In 2011, when we joined We Are Ohio in the fight to repeal Ohio’s Senate Bill 5, the Ohio Conference of AAUP and the other public-employee unions were greatly heartened when the firefighters and police resisted the effort of the Kasich administration to peel them away from the coalition by promising to treat them differently.

    Likewise, even though the bill did not directly impact the private-sector unions, those unions came forward to stand with us and to put their resources at our disposal because they recognized that being spared in such an attack is, at best, a very temporary circumstance. Some of those unions–most notably the UFCW–do not represent anyone in the public sector, never mind higher education.

    So, I very much agree with your position that the failure to defend tenure throughout your state system will ultimately not protect tenure for anyone. In fact, it will ultimately just make it much easier to reduce those now regarded as “elite” to the same contingent status as everyone else.

  2. Pingback: The Weak vs. the Wrong, and an Emerging Alternative for Faculty Governance | The Academe Blog

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