Monday, June 15, 2015

In the Regents We Trust? How Autonomy Put Tenure on the Chopping Block

Guest post by Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noterman

JFC Omnibus copy.jpg

National attention has turned to Wisconsin yet again due to a Republican-led charge to eliminate longstanding and historically progressive state protections for employees. Last week, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), a subcommittee of the Legislature, approved an omnibus motion that not only cuts the university budget by $250 million but also removes tenure protections for faculty from state statutes. The tenure item has led many around the country to conclude that Wisconsin is a conservative testing ground for ALEC-styled initiatives, while media representation would seem to suggest that there has been an active, political response to it. For instance, headlines last week read, “Wisconsin faculty incensed by motion to eliminate tenure,” “Faculty members protest tenure, shared governance changes,” and “Outraged UW-Madison faculty call for full court press on tenure.” (The titles of the first two pieces, written by Colleen Flaherty for Inside Higher Ed, have recently been changed to remove any mention of faculty response. They are now entitled “Trying to Kill Tenure” and “Losing Hope in Wisconsin.”)

But these titles are misleading, as we will outline here, for numerous reasons and importantly for strategic reasons. Early on in February when the Biennial Budget first announced the potential magnitude of the cuts, there was widespread agreement among university administration and many faculty and students that protest and political action would only worsen the situation. Despite the ongoing attacks on the university system by the state legislature and the seeming complicity of the UW System President, Ray Cross many faculty and students continue to trust the Board of Regents (BOR), UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, and Cross to diplomatically defend student and faculty interests against the conservative agenda set by the Legislature. By and large, faculty, students and others decided that political action would only ensure the passage of the $300 million cuts proposed in the 2015-17 Budget. Despite the fact that sixteen of the eighteen members of the Board of Regents are Governor Walker appointees, there was a hopeful assumption on the part of faculty that the Board would push back against the recent Joint Finance Committee’s motion especially item #39 which alters the tenure system by moving tenure protections from state statutes to the Board of Regents.

But the Board of Regents, and UW-Madison’s administration in particular, is playing a strategic game. From what we see as an increasingly neoliberal university, the elimination of tenure and massive budgetary cuts are merely bumps along the road of “difficult decisions” that will transform Wisconsin’s flagship university into a more efficient competitor for tuition dollars and a more flexible manager of its employees. In recognizing this strategic game, our point is not to dismiss the importance of state defunding nor to argue that the state should be idealized or nostalgized as a funding source.

It is, rather, as Annie McClanahan recently pointed out during a talk on UW-Madison’s campus, that we cannot separate or exempt the university from its role in the production of student debt, delimited accessibility for students of color and students of limited economic means, and ultimately the collectively foreclosed future of what we continue to refer to as the public. One important example to bear in mind throughout this post comes out of Demos’ recent report “Wisconsin’s Great Cost Shift.” The report greatly emphasizes state defunding and pays little attention to the role of universities’ pursuit of increased tuition revenues. But it also mentions that despite tuition revenue increases, expenditures on student instruction and academic support has slightly declined while expenditures on student services has risen 12.3%. Thus, as we wrote in February on this blog, tuition control and what tuition can be used to pay for has been a main factor in the struggle for UW-Madison and System autonomy in Wisconsin.

Wait for it….

At the emergency UW-Madison Faculty Senate meeting held on June 9th to address the JFC’s passage of the omnibus motion, Chancellor Blank attempted to allay faculty concerns by telling them that whereas other universities in the UW-System are subject to the Board of Regents’ tenure policy, UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee will have the ability to write their own tenure policies. Why is this? Because UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee are currently both in the process of finalizing independent Human Resource systems (through the HR Design project) that are to be implemented this year. Blank offered this olive branch as if it was a reprieve from the current legislative onslaught on the university. In reality, however, the HR Design project at UW-Madison is bound up with tenure elimination and budget cuts. And Blank’s use of it as a tool in the growing flexibilities toolbox obscures the fact that it is a causal factor and not a byproduct of the current funding crisis; Blank treated it instead as an affirmation of the need for autonomy from the state rather than bound up with the cuts that came along with it. What follows is a brief recap of the origin of this HR Design, since a broader outline was offered in a past post on this website and on Remaking the University.

At the same time that Governor Scott Walker was pushing through policies that demolished public sector unions in Wisconsin in 2011, then-UW-Madison Chancellor Caroline “Biddy” Martin was in discussions with him about another item in that budget, which was called the New Badger Partnership (NBP). Walker had the prerogative to include the NBP because, in Wisconsin, the Governor has a divine fiat allowing him to write statutory changes, fiscal and otherwise, into the Biennial Budget. Chancellor Martin’s messaging about the NBP primarily focused on the financial flexibilities it would give the university for purchasing supplies. But for our purposes here, the most important and least spoken about feature of the NBP was that it would have given the University of Wisconsin-Madison far greater control over tuition setting capacities, both for in-state and out-of-state students. This Partnership was eventually watered down considerably and some of the “flexibilities” it did provide were expanded out to include all UW-System universities and colleges. But it gave UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee alone the power to create and implement their own, independent Human Resources policies.

Thus, the HR system Blank invoked on Tuesday originated out of the first real political confrontation between the state and the university in recent years, not over abstract or general flexibilities but namely the right to set in-state and out-of-state tuition costs in a manner more akin to our university’s peers. We saw the same struggle ensue over tuition setting power in the most recent budget, where UW System leaders and Republican legislators both agreed that a Public Authority model, which granted tuition control after a two-year freeze imposed by the state, was best for the System even if it meant trading that power for significant cuts to the university’s budget.

Blank’s characterization of the HR Design as a fortunate antidote to current tenure threats obscures past decisions and actions of the university, decisions that some warned against as potential triggers for future state defunding. Her portrayal of the Design as a disconnected tool that we happen to have at our disposal, rather than as a past point of contention in the recent history of the restructuring of higher education, makes it impossible to debate whether or not past decisions in the pursuit of autonomy were good ones, and whether or not we should continue to endorse and move forward with them now. And it further perpetuates the bureaucratic posture with which many UW-Madison workers and students are now familiar in which we are told by administrators that not enough information is currently available to predict what will happen in the future. This posture ignores the incremental, but concrete, decisions made along the way, decisions which inform what future policies on tenure, governance and tuition hikes will look like years from now. As UW workers found out during the process through which UW-Madison created its new HR system one that removed seniority and established merit-based pay raises once there is enough information about university policies, it’s already too late to contest them.  

This bureaucratic posture is reflected in Blank’s recent comment on her blog that “Section 39 isn’t a command or directive. It merely authorizes the Board of Regents to lay-off faculty for the stated reasons. The Regents can decide when and how they want to invoke that authority” (Chancellor Blank’s Message). The ambiguity of this comment is stated as if it was meant to be a comfort for faculty, promising a malleable and open process in which they will have agency, through a Task Force, to write a tenure policy for UW-Madison that adheres to the “gold standard” of the AAUP. It is further coupled with guarantees by Blank and others that campus community involvement in that process will be crucial, even as she describes shared governance through a weakened language of “consulting” with faculty.  

In such rhetoric the actual precarity of faculty’s current situation is turned into a selling point, neglecting the fact that while the BOR might approve this gold standard for UW-Madison it’s still entirely unclear how much jurisdiction they will have in implementing their own, newly acquired powers to terminate tenured professors above and beyond UW-Madison’s policy. As the Public Representative Organization of the Faculty Senate at UW-Madison (PROFS) has pointed out, the fact that the BOR can “terminate any faculty or academic staff…due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection,” means that there “could be no meaningful limit on the power of the Regents to dismiss faculty and/or to close programs or research centers that fell out of favor with administrators or political leaders.” In this context, Chancellor Blank’s statements evoking UW’s history of standing up for academic freedom and commitment to “sifting and winnowing” is far from reassuring. As David Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences, recently said as to the future without tenure, “We will sift where it is safe to sift. We will winnow where we are told to winnow.”

It’s entirely unclear how this promise of “wait and see” will function in the future since, as Richard Grusin put it, “Wisconsin is about to go from being the only state with tenure in statute to being the only state with broad provisions for firing tenured faculty in statute.” But it’s likely that what Blank refers to as a mere authorization of power for the BOR is of a kind with the logic by which she separated the HR Design project from our universities’ struggle for greater access to private revenue streams like tuition at UW-Madison. That is, it will be used in a similar manner in the future, swooping in at a moment of budgetary crisis and applied under the guise of necessity, as if it was the only way to protect the university from the state’s attacks. And shouldn’t we be grateful for it, they will ask, when programs need to be closed and certain faculty let go?

In instances like this, we are reminded of the logic Zizek describes where one waits patiently for evidence or data for proof of what might happen in the future, instead of looking in the face of available and explicit ideology. In our case, that means asking how the struggle for autonomy, a term that Scott Walker, Rebecca Blank and Ray Cross all deployed in support of the public authority model, connects seemingly disparate projects like our new HR system to recent budget cuts from the state, along with the rising tuition, fee and housing costs that are making UW-Madison an increasingly elitist, exclusive institution.

Whose tenure?

HR policies are thus part of a systemic shift that includes decreased affordability and even, however unintentionally on the part of UW System administrators, the recent attacks on tenure. The successful precedence of those policies, which have effectively eroded job security for staff and non-faculty workers by terminating seniority rights and installing individuated merit-based pay raises, only further highlight an entrenched raced and classed ideology that would preserve job security only for those doing “intellectual” or academic work at the university. Such policies can easily target janitors and clerical workers without backlash from academic workers, in part because tenure was defined in its origins as a protection specifically for academic freedom and not as a job protection. It’s no surprise that Blank can defend tenure through the same system that is stripping other workers of job protections, since it was first established in 1916 when the AAUP abandoned unionization for “a weak form of academic freedom” through which faculty “retained the power to govern knowledge production [but] gave up power to govern the political and economic functions of the university” (Johnson et al 492).

Even so, the threat to knowledge production is not evenly distributed today. Numerous faculty responses to the recent tenure threat, including the rhetoric of a mass exodus of faculty from the state, suggest that somehow any faculty person, working on any topic could be affected by the BOR increased powers to terminate employment. While theoretically true, this view ignores the historic and ongoing differences in how faculty and academic programs are treated within the university. Thus, the question of who will be most affected by the changes in tenure are connected to the historic development of ‘academic freedom’ and tenure, the continued “pattern of marginalization” of certain academic programs, and the general trends toward the precaritization of labor in the university. And it tends to ignore the fact that programs and departments have always been tied to their financial viability in some way, as we saw exemplified in the sweeping closures of humanities and arts departments after the 2008 financial crisis.

In response to Republican attacks on tenure as a job-for-life guarantee, faculty have argued that tenure provides critical protection for academic freedom. And certainly throughout the history of tenure it has buffered faculty from external intervention and attack. However, this has not universally been the case. As pointed out in Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s book, The Imperial University, certain faculty especially those of color whose research is deemed politically contentious, have lacked these protections. They quote Ellen W. Shrecker, who argues that the early Seligman Report by the AAUP in 1915, actually “reveals how deeply enmeshed the notion of academic freedom was with the overall status, security and prestige of the academic profession” (Chatterjee and Maira 2014:35). Thus, while early discussions of academic freedom sought to protect faculty from outsiders, they did not “adequately address political dissidence or any political positions that were considered ‘unsympathetic’ by the majority of academics” (36). Instead, it was largely focused on maintaining “‘appropriate” behavior that would not jeopardize the professionalism and status of academia.” And thus we see a continued policing of academic “civility” on campuses around the country.

In this context, then, the changes in tenure at UW would certainly affect faculty work - perhaps increasing anxiety and subsequently leading to conservatism. However, faculty who are already marginalized are likely to be affected the most by these changes. In a famous example, Professor Steven Salaita’s faculty appointment was terminated by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after his public critique of Israel’s actions in Gaza in the summer of 2014. The University justified its decision by citing Salaita’s “incivility.” A recent report by the American Association of University Professors, recognizes that “civility consistently operates to constitute relations of power,” and that “it is always the powerful who determine its meaning a meaning that serves to delegitimize the words and actions of those to whom it is applied.” In addition, as pointed out by Salaita, the language of civility also works to reproduce a “colonial logic” one in which the university is thoroughly entrenched determining who gets to speak and which departments get support.

Here at UW-Madison, the recent efforts to consolidate the Ethnic Studies programs which include Chicano and Latino Studies, Asian American Studies, American Indian Studies and Afro-American Studies exemplify what Political Science Professor Ben Marquez calls a “greater pattern of marginalization” on our own campus. Despite asserting the importance of diversity on campus, in 2013 approximately 72% of students and 76% of faculty and staff identified as white. In this context, as Karma Chavez, a professor in communications, argues, “the very programs designed to help students learn diverse histories and feel included on this campus are treated like third class citizens.” And due to the threat of budget cuts, the Gender and Women's Studies department at UW-Madison received notice of a 20% budgetary cut despite having performed very well on the university’s own enrollment-based metrics. So even adhering to the bureaucratic norms put in place by administration may not protect the marginalized and much-embattled programs that were, perhaps, never the central concern of academic freedom to protect in the first place.

How to act on a campus divided

At the recent Faculty Senate meeting, Blank vouched for the Board of Regents as a body that we can trust, but also said only time will prove whether or not they share our care and concern for higher education in the state. As we’ve suggested above, this is a rhetoric that needs to be read closely and carefully as it bears a bureaucratic strategy within it that obscures past decisions made by our own administrators about state funding and the primacy of increasing private funds. Those decisions continue to shape our present and future in Wisconsin. And as we’ve also suggested, her assurances leave questions about equity and race in regards to student access and faculty protection completely to the side. These two reasons are precisely why we believe it is important to organize and protest strategically on our campuses, and not only against the state, as UW-Madison’s administration has itself been an active agent, albeit in complicated and sometimes contradictory ways, in producing our current crisis. With the “flexibilities” that are inevitably coming down the pipeline, those of us concerned with equity, access, race and gender issues must hold our administration responsible, and we cannot do that by remaining silent or by placing trust in their ambivalent information about future decisions that is always deferred.  

Our decisions about strategy, protest and political action need to be informed, of course, by the 2011 Capitol occupation and how it has been remembered during this most recent political crisis. In the month after the current budget proposal was released, much of our campus community and administration warned that any response similar to that of 2011 would only further weaken our chances of reducing cuts, because it would make us look like “crazy radicals” and play into Walker’s own narrative. This kind of revisionism isn’t simply wrong, given that what received widespread media attention throughout the the occupation and what led to its limited agenda (Kill the Bill) was that the fact that it was quite unradical in many regards. The Capitol protests were peaceful and largely filled by teachers, firefighters, and nurses--not by insurrectionists.


But you wouldn’t know that by talking to most Wisconsinites, who argue that the extreme nature of the occupation catalyzed the failure of the later recall election that tried to oust Walker from power, rather than the Democrats' mismanagement of it. Ask most people in Madison or consult popular publications on the recall, and they will attest that the occupation proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that political action is too risky in conservative times like these, an assessment that confirms, a la Frederic Jameson, that history hurts. But in our case it also seems that history is traumatic, as many of those who participated in the protests now reject them and endorse a revisionist account in which it wasn’t everyday people engaging in direct action in 2011, perhaps for the first time in their lives, but some other unstable, radical population. What could have been a starting point for building a more skilled and strategic action for the future has lapsed into a narrative that makes action an untouchable end point, never to be repeated. This interpretation of the past informed the strategic choices made early on in the budgetary process, making it seem like the only channels available to university workers and students were the doors of System and UW-Madison administrators and their largely closed-door discussions.

The results they returned to us, a reduction from $300 million to $250 million in cuts and a proposal to raise out-of-state and international student tuition by more than $10,000 over the next four years, might maintain some kind of status quo of funding on our campus for now. But what are the larger impacts of having depended on legislative lobbying and administrative approaches to address state budgetary cuts? Who will get left out, put on the margins, made the exception or the example of the rule under these conditions, both as a result of cuts to the budget and to tenure protections? And who would we be struggling for and with if we instead chose to cultivate an active culture of dissent from this status quo and engaged instead in political action? 

One answer to these questions might be available in the history of struggles for ethnic studies, black studies and women’s studies programs that took place from the 1960s up to the 1980s, and their focused strategy of antagonism, occupations and concrete demands. Instead of relying on promises of future reform made under the sign of multiculturalism and diversity, students and some faculty engaged in political actions because they realized it was the only way to leverage their power and to make demands on university faculty and administrators. Many of these attempts were unsuccessful and others were translated into disciplines and colleges that conformed to the existing university structures. But we close with this example because it reminds us that students and faculty before us recognized and identified their campuses, and not simply their states, as sites of dissensus and struggle, rather than unity and agreement. Those were struggles over the kind of non-utilitarian education, one not reducible to the demands of the job market, that can seem impossible to defend in public today. As Nick Mitchell recently glossed in his Theses on Adjunctification, the struggle for ethnic studies and black studies came about at the very same time that black, brown and female workers were brought into the university to perform low wage, contingent labor. We should keep this in mind today, as we see the inverse taking place in the collapse of such programs alongside the explosion of contingent labor far beyond dining halls and custodial closets. It is time choose our histories strategically, then, and align ourselves with those workers already in the most precarious positions in our universities, and to fight for tenure not for the sake of already-tenured faculty but with those who have been excluded from it.


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