The Management Model Driving Wisconsin’s #FakeTenure Saga [updated]

The following piece by Christopher Newfield, Professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is re-posted with permission from his Remaking the University blog.

Wisconsin System Board of Regents Vice-President J.R. Behling

Wisconsin System Board of Regents Vice-President J.R. Behling

Somewhere Michael Lewis tells the story about what the boss of a trading floor–perhaps John Meriwether–would do when a trader hung on too long to a losing position, hoping that it would turn around. He would approach the trader from behind, and whisper his version of the old Dusty Springfield song–“wishing, and hoping, and thinking, and praying.”   Which meant, dump it, eat your loss, try something else, right the hell now. (Left: Wisconsin System Board of Regents Vice-President J.R. Behling.)

This would be good advice for governing boards of universities, who are doubling and tripling down on a losing strategy, which is to elbow their faculty experts further out of educational decision making.  Exhibit A is Wisconsin’s #faketenure story that continued today with a Board of Regents Education Committee vote on UW-Madison layoff policy (materials starting at page 160).   They voted the changes through, and the full board is slated to do the same thing tomorrow.  The changes move faculty expertise over educational impacts to the fringes of program decisions.

Sustaining the spirit of the thing, the UW Regents had backed the system president Ray Cross’s decision to refuse to allow chancellors to deliver their reports on the effect of state budget cuts on their campuses–wishing and hoping they haven’t permanently damaged the university system they are legally obligated to protect, and making sure they don’t publicly hear otherwise. (Nico Savidge reported that President Cross was concerned about the effect of a “two-hour drumbeat” of impacts of cuts that was too “repetitive.”)

Last month, the UW Regents voted in favor of tenure dilution for the overall system; today’s vote applies only to the Madison campus. You may remember that Wisconsin had tenure written into its state statutes, and then Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature deleted it. They also weakened shared governance and cut the university’s budget by around 8 percent.  At first, senior officials in the UW system said this was okay because they would just move the previous tenure procedures from state statute to university code.

When the university task force proposals were unveiled, the UW AAUP demonstrated that they were not equivalent to established tenure.  One key issue was that under the new proposals, tenured faculty could be fired on grounds of program discontinuation, rather than on grounds of financial exigency that affected the whole institution.  Could the business school dean now decide to fire the public health faculty because it could make more money giving those lines to the unit on financial engineering? Could the provost decide that the English department could fill seats more efficiently by cutting 18th Century Studies and laying off their tenured professors?  Faculty analysts thought so.  For example, in February Nick Fleisher walked through some helpful detail about how this would work. But throughout the process, UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank, system president Ray Cross, and other senior managers assured faculty that nothing meaningful would change.

Then something meaningful happened last month. The Wisconsin Board of Regents met and ratified weakened tenure protections over the protests of the faculty senate.  A key passage of the new university rules reads as follows (page 31):

The maintenance of tenure-track and tenured faculty, and of essential instructional and supporting services, remains the highest priority of the university. To promote and maintain high-quality programs, the institutions of the UW System may over time develop new programs and discontinue existing programs. Accordingly, and notwithstanding RPD 20-23 (Regent Policy Document on Faculty Tenure), a tenured faculty member, or a probationary faculty member prior to the end of his or her appointment, may be laid off in the event that educational considerations relating to a program require program discontinuance.

The plain meaning of this text is that if administrators decide to end a program, they can fire tenured faculty by invoking “educational considerations” and not just financial ones. These are, as the next paragraph explains:

related in part to regular program review, and reflect a long-range judgment that the educational mission of the institution as a whole will be enhanced by program discontinuance.  This includes the reallocation of resources to other programs with higher priority based on educational considerations.  Such long-range judgments generally will involve the analysis of financial resources and the needs of the program and any related college or school.

In the new Wisconsin system, educational factors are mixed together with financial ones. This means that programs will not now be evaluated intellectually and then structured so they don’t lose too much money (though high-value research programs in STEM always do). This means they can be reviewed for their return on investment, and higher expected profitability in financial engineering can trump higher intellectual value and other non-market and social benefits in public health. (I discuss the ROI version of educational review in “The Humanities as Service Departments.”)

But who would calculate ROI and the public-value tradeoffs?  Under what collaborative process? Faculty have believed since before the 1915 founding of the AAUP that educational considerations form their unique expertise, and that they would decide what is studied and taught.  At the March UW Regents meeting, Regent Tony Evers attempted to codify this faculty authority, as Colleen Flaherty described in her excellent blow-by-blow.

Evers proposed that the policy be amended to specify that a designated faculty committee review programs being considered for closure based on purely educational concerns, alongside any other committee considering them based on financial and/or educational concerns.

“This focuses our efforts on educational considerations being our primary consideration,” Evers said. “Not all of it, but primary.”

The amendment, adapted from a request by faculty representatives from across the university system, echoed an earlier statement to the regents by Geoffrey Peterson, chair of political science at the university system’s Eau Claire campus: that faculty concerns about the proposed policies could be summed up by saying that “economic factors cannot and should not take precedence over academic considerations and academic freedom when making programmatic decisions.”

A majority of regents rejected the forming of an autonomous faculty judgment of a proposed closure’s educational value, with the motion failing 11 to 5.

Regent Evers made a second attempt to maintain the precedence of educational considerations and, by extension, faculty authority in the firing of tenured professors.  He proposed language saying,

long-range [programmatic] judgments will involve primarily educational considerations and secondarily the analysis of financial resources and the needs or the program and any related college or school. Fiscal considerations must be preceded by educational considerations. Criteria for determining whether a program should be eliminated ought to place greatest emphasis on the quality of the program involved. Such assessment should take into account the quality of the faculty, the value and the particular character of the program and the performance of its students.

This amendment also lost 11 to 5.

Regent Evers took a third swing, proposing “that the layoff policy should be changed to say that administrators will pursue’ every alternative to faculty layoffs in the event of a program closure, instead of ‘consider.’  He picked up a few extra votes with this one, but still lost in an 8 to 8 tie.

The regental majority thus swatted down three different and increasingly diminished versions of faculty control of educational considerations. Ms. Flaherty reported,

James M. M. Hartwick, professor of curriculum and instruction and Faculty Senate chair at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, said via email that he was “shocked and appalled that the board would not adopt a single amendment that all the elected faculty representatives and all the faculty members on the [task force] requested.”

It wasn’t only faculty who were surprised.

Regent Jose F. Vasquez said he wouldn’t vote for any of the amendments because he wasn’t convinced the policy under which the university system has been operating for decades needed fixing — even in light of the changes to state law. He said he didn’t believe that chancellors need more help running their universities, or that faculty members were so “entrenched” that they couldn’t make rational decisions about program viability on their own.

“They understand that two things are the lifeline of higher education: quality and students,” Vasquez said. “And students come because they find the quality and affordability, and I am convinced that both [faculty and administrators] understand that very clearly. I don’t think chancellors are looking around saying, ‘I can’t deliver that,’ and I don’t think faculty are looking around saying, ‘Damn quality, damn the students, I’m here to do my research, and if I happen to have only one student so be it.’”

Regents Vasquez and Evers are the two regents who come from inside the education sector, with direct professional expertise.  They were voted down.

Why? A key reason is that president Ray Cross sided with the regental majority against faculty control of “educational considerations.” Other senior managers may have done so less publicly. A deeper reason is the majority board belief that strategic managers simply must have the power to fire employees.  Many

regents said it would be unwise to move financial concerns down the priority list, and compared closing programs to a business investing its resources in its most profitable products. “Welcome to the 21st century,” Regent Margaret Farrow said, arguing that Evers’s amendment could undo what the task force tried to achieve.

More like “welcome to the 20th century.”  Even more pointedly,

John Robert Behling, board vice president and chair of the tenure policy task force, objected to Evers’s proposal, . . . saying that the creation of another committee would diminish the “flexibility, flexibility, flexibility” campus chancellors need to make decisions in light of the $250 million cut to higher education in the current state budget.

Regent Behling should be saying, “quality, quality, quality,” to keep himself and other Wisconsin leaders from steadily slashing the infrastructure that would allow the state to regain its lost leadership status.  Instead, he and the board majority went with the capacity to override tenure.   Some large portion of Wisconsin leadership has spent years obsessing about UW tenure as a main roadblock to economic greatness.  No evidence has ever been presented for this–no calculation of how expensive sociology professors are impeding the growth of contract manufacturing.  It’s a political goal and a cultural belief–in much of U.S. business culture, the power to fire people makes everything fixable. “Flexibility” started out in the 1970s as a desperation move as US industry lost its postwar lead over Germany, Japan, and other rebuilt industrial powers. In the 1980s, management theorists like Tom Peters and Rosabeth Moss Kanter showed that mass layoffs destroyed company value rather than created it, but short-term executive rewards ran against them, and mass layoffs became a routine practice and sure-fire way of doping the stock price.  “Flexibility” has nothing to do with improving education.   It’s imposition has already damaged education, and its practice will continue to.

So what is the point?

The point is to implement an authority structure that can control public universities under permanent austerity and in the absence of a growing and rising middle-class.  Culture wars are good for discrediting particular sources of sociocultural knowledge like ethnic studies, feminist studies, or Middle Eastern Studies.  Budget cuts are good for taking the whole public university sector down a few notches.  But to reengineer a static enterprise, after decades in which their boards failed to maintain the state revenues on which the system was built, public university governors need the audit and assessment practices that Europeans have long called New Public Management (NPM).

To extract from a gigantic literature, NPM inserts financial considerations into everything, in the form of quantitative indicators and targets.  It does not acknowledge goals that cannot be measured, though this is an obvious problem for public goods, since their value is not internalizable by the institution that creates them. NPM is preoccupied with “grading and ranking” (Shore and Wright 2015, cited below), the better to optimize outputs by moving resources from lower-ranked operations to higher-ranked ones.  NPM assesses management quality by its ability to optimize to its own determinations of efficiency: the goal is internal self-validation, not the fit between the management system and organization behaviors, outcomes, or goals.  NPM implicitly works towards a Pareto distribution (80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes), meaning that 80 or even 90 percent of your people make nearly no difference to the organization’s overall value.  Mass quality in higher ed is of little interest, and the same goes for the democratization of intelligence.   Designated “top faculty” must be given the resources that, under #realtenure, were distributed widely across the campus.

The effects of this system has been abundantly studied, and I offer one critical list of effects from two leading analysts of NPM, Cris Shore and Susan Wright, to be found in “Audit Culture Revisited: Rankings, Ratings, and the Reassembling of Society,” in Current Anthropology (June 2015). NPM systems lead, they wrote, to:

  1. Loss of organizational trust (O’Neill 2002; Power 1994);
  2. Elaborate and wasteful gaming strategies (House of Commons 2004; Shore and Wright 2000; Wright 2009);
  3. A culture of compliance and large compliance costs, including the appointment of new specialists preoccupied with creating positive (mis)representations of performance (Miller 2001);
  4. Defensive strategies and blamism that stifle innovation and focus on short-term objectives over long-term needs (Hood 2002);
  5. Deprofessionalization, a disconnect between motivation and incentives, lower employee morale, and increased stress and anxiety (Bovbjerg 2011; Brenneis, Shore, and Wright 2005; Wright 2014);
  6. “Tunnel vision” and performing to the measure, with a focus solely on what is counted, to the exclusion of anything else (Townley and Doyle 2007);
  7. And the undermining of welfare and educational activities that cannot be easily measured (King and Moutsou 2010).

Recognize any of these?  If not now, then soon.

I personally believe that the historical tide is running against NPM.  It is grossly inefficient, among many other things.  Tenure had kept it at bay by protecting faculty from retaliation.  Weakening tenure strengthens our U.S. version of NPM, now coming to Wisconsin campuses near you–and in other states, as I’ll discuss in future posts.   Faculty, staff, students, and administrators, whose jobs are also being ruined by this type of managerialism, now need to confront US-NPM if public universities are to move forward again.


 

UPDATE April 8th (from Chris Newfield): Today the chancellor of UW-Madison, Rebecca Blank, issued a statement about the new tenure rules. She stresses the unlikelihood of program closures that would result in the firing of tenured faculty and gave examples of closures that led to reassignment without job loss.  She also claims that while the state legislature insisted

that tenured faculty could be laid off for reasons including “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” . . .  In March, the Board approved a broad System-wide policy relating to tenure and the layoff of tenured faculty members.  That policy allowed layoffs to be considered only in cases of financial emergency or program discontinuance due to educational considerations.  To state this clearly: The Regents chose not to allow layoffs of tenured faculty in the case of program changes or modifications.

This would mean that Madison’s new tenure rules would prevent one of my examples of a sub-departmental firing (ending 18th century studies in an English department).  I don’t think it would prevent the other example (closing public health as a program or department in a business school).  I also think the definition of “program” in Section 10.01A could be used by different chancellor for surgical terminations–“a related cluster of credit-bearing courses that constitute a coherent body of study within a discipline or set of related disciplines” (page 4).  This appears to be exactly the executive power that Regents Farrow and Behling wanted to create.

Chancellor Blank also offers one of the clearer administrative statements of the value of tenure that I’ve seen:

Tenure provides freedom to pursue a research agenda that might be bolder, take longer to come to fruition, or that might generate controversy.  I can personally testify that I did my best work after receiving tenure. Tenure allowed me to take on a few bigger and riskier research projects, which took longer to complete but resulted in papers whose findings contributed something more fundamental to the field.

Quite true. I would add that tenure would be stronger if faculty defend the ethic of due process for all employees, and the value of job security for everyone’s creativity.   This will be obvious to all of us in that future time when we stop trying to inspire effectiveness by burdening each other with threats.

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