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Though Presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker announced a little more than two weeks ago he would be suspending his presidential campaign, two of his political policies became subjects of national attention. The first was building a wall on the US/Canadian Border, considered ridiculous even by his GOP counterparts; the second, a legislative attack on the long held rite of passage in teaching known as tenure. Walker watched his short-lived candidacy crumble like the wall he wanted to build, but his desire to use politics as a control mechanism in education continues to be a threat. After all, the two-term governor rose to prominence over his controversial “right-to-work” legislation that stripped most state and local employees of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights and became a huge blow to federal unions. Walker is using the same type of legislation on his educational policies, including attacks on tenure.
In early June this year the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and Wisconsin University Professors began to vocalize their objections to Walker’s political maneuvers. Educational Policy Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nancy Kendall, wrote in a recent article for Newsweek, “As a researcher whose work examines the politics of education in the U.S. and around the world, I am deeply concerned by the threat this legislative shift poses to the ability of public university faculty to conduct research about politically inconvenient facts and teach in politically disfavored fields—the core purposes of faculty tenure and shared governance in public universities.” Kendall recognized the coming threat as similar to Walker’s legislative push on labor, women’s, and environmental issues. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee enabled the firing of half the researchers in the state natural resources department which enabled a ban on all discussions on climate change by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. Kendall writes, ” The curtailment of the faculty’s ability to research, speak, write and teach freely about what is happening in our world will not change the hard truths and inequitable consequences of the political, economic and social policies being adopted in Wisconsin. But it will make them harder to identify and address, and that, sadly, is the triumph of limiting tenure.”
Kendall is one of many University of Wisconsin-Madison professors to publicly denounce Walker’s anti-tenure legislation. Many professors, faculty, and administrators have vocalized their disdain towards the legislation, but no one caught media attention like Professor Sarah Goldrick-Rab. The Educational Policy and Sociology Professor gained notoriety after using her twitter as a forum of dialogue with incoming freshmen. Goldrick-Rab’s tweets were aimed at informing incoming students the value of their future college degree was in crisis because many professors were planning on seeking new employment if Walker’s legislation succeeded. The professor received a large amount of backlash for her opinion, especially because it appeared she questioned the university’s academic worth. When asked to explain her intentions she said, ” I was very frustrated with the university not being forthcoming. Nobody’s communicating with them. So I looked for prospective students on Twitter and sent them information…. They need to know what’s going on…. I’m not trying to say to them: ‘Don’t come here.” She also predicted Walker would find a way to forcibly dismiss her from the university. “Mark my words: In order to make an example of me for his campaign, Walker will have me fired within a year.” Luckily, she outlasted the Walker campaign.
Walker’s legislative action isn’t the only push against tenure in recent years. In June 2014, a California superior-court judge ruled California’s tenure system discriminates against children in low-income families. The Vergara v. California ruling was another big blow to teachers unions. The judge suggested the ruling would protect civil rights by creating equality in public education. Ironically, the plaintiff received large donations from wealthy conservative groups and people, most of whom live in areas where 70-80% of school age children go to private schools. When the facts settle is appears that California like 26 other states since 2009 loosened tenure laws because of the expectancy of raising federal and state mandated test scores. Most poverty and at-risk schools are under even more pressure to perform in standardized testing. Simply put, very few teachers want to work in a less that hospitable conditions. Somehow, however, the Vergara v. California ruling that creates even less job security is supposed to change teachers’ desires.
In his article, The Role of Tenure in Higher Education,