BY HANK REICHMAN
As regular readers of this blog know well, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to decimate public funding for the University of Wisconsin System and erode the protections of tenure and shared governance have aroused broad opposition among faculty members. On the defensive, Walker has issued a series of misleading and outright false statements about faculty work — the biggest whopper being his absurd claim that UW has a student-faculty ratio of just 2.8 to 1, when it’s really more like 43 to 1 — that have been effectively demolished by faculty leaders. But the failed presidential candidate is now doubling down with another misleading claim. In an interview published on Monday, Walker said this of the tenure controversy:
“We don’t eliminate tenure, but we give the University of Wisconsin System administration more flexibility; so, as an example, if a tenured professor has a course and maybe there’s only a handful of people in it, they (UW System leaders) now have the ability to say, ‘There’s not enough students in this class. We’re going to shut this class down and take those resources and put it into an area where there’s high demand for students who need those credits to graduate on time.’
“We know if students graduate on time it lowers their student loan debt costs,” Walker said. “To me, those are the real changes in terms of tenure. We don’t eliminate it outright, but we do have greater flexibility so that universities can manage funds to provide real value for students.”
Now we all know that Walker’s claim that tenure is simply a “job for life” is both a lie and an insidious effort to undermine academic freedom and educational quality. But so too is this false claim of flexibility. For anyone who has ever worked in higher education knows that his “example” is completely ridiculous. I doubt there are more than a small handful of colleges or universities in the country, with strong tenure systems, where a class cannot easily be cancelled and a faculty member reassigned owing to insufficient enrollment. It happens every day, no doubt at every UW campus. Tenure provides the right to continuing appointment and protection from arbitrary dismissal, but it does not and never has guaranteed that a tenured professor can teach whatever course she or he desires regardless of student demand. Indeed, I’ll bet that most faculty members are like me: if they haven’t had a class cancelled at some point they know others who have. It’s really basic enrollment management and has absolutely nothing to do with tenure.
What Walker and his allies in the Wisconsin board and administration have done, however — and what he seeks to disguise here — is to permit the administration to FIRE and not simply reassign a faculty member if they claim that faculty member’s program needs “modification.” And Walker’s remarks indicate that he believes that only a single under-enrolled section may adequately justify such “modification.” But as experience shows, resources can be and often are easily shifted from course to course and program to program, even with a highly tenured faculty. In a pinch faculty members can and sometimes do teach courses that they’d rather not teach. Indeed, many faculty members voluntarily prepare courses only marginally related to their initial specialty and some even retrain themselves in totally different fields. Walker’s claim of “flexibility” is therefore worse than misleading; it is bogus, plain and simple. And once again Walker demonstrates that he is either an ignoramus or a liar. Or both.