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,

Professor John E. Savage, reminds readers the idea of tenure was first introduced to American Universities in the late 1800s as a responsive measure to the arbitrary dismissal of teachers based on the gender, their beliefs, and other… Click To Tweet.

Before Massachusetts introduced tenure in 1886, women were often fired for getting married, pregnant,  or being out too late at night.  Tenure has been a foundation for many universities and professors to stand on during times  where academic ideals were less than favorable in the political realms. The legislation currently happening in Wisconsin may show why tenure is a major artery in the heart of education.  The proposed legislatures suggests a politically appointed board of regents to oversee the state’s universities.  The board would create the standard for dismissing faculty members. This board of regents would also ultimately be responsible for curriculum, instructional methodology, and research; there would no longer be a shared governance, a important feature that gives faculty the primary responsibilities of what they teach. The Director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis at the AASCU, Barmak Nassirian, suggests the proposal is “monumental” and  that the policies a Board of Regents will adopt simply cannot be as effective as the policies in place.

The loss of tenure and shared governance at any university or school would begin to transform the academic model to a corporate model. Schools and universities would look much more like a business and less like an institution of learning. For example, look at any for-profit colleges in the United States and the negative impact they are making on the economy, debt, and education.  In the corporate model students become commodities and education a product.  This means that special departments and courses would no longer be relevant to the academic model. They would be eliminated in the name of financially  inefficiency.

Most opponent’s of tenure don’t actually understand the tenure system.  This is also true of many teachers that oppose the system.  The 3 most used objections to tenure are as follows:

1.) Tenured faculty are lazy. They no longer have to try once they have their tenure and will immediately begin focusing their efforts on obscure and meaningless research.

This is simply untrue. Tenured faculty often partake in committees and engross themselves in their school. Click To Tweet They may do more research than non-tenured professors but the newest research means more knowledgeable classes. Also tenured teacher’s usually spend about 50-60 hours working a week.

2.)  Teacher’s get summers off and tenure? That just isn’t fair.

Yes, teachers do get summers off (usually) but that means it is time to work. Why? Look at a teacher’s paycheck, you’ll understand. And yes, teachers also need tenure; protection in academic freedom is essential to a proper educational system.

3.)  Many tenured teachers grow old and refuse to retire. It is impossible to fire a tenured teacher.

Not true. Though some professors do not retire until they become irrelevant tenure is not the culprit. Tenure gives professors and teachers a due process that makes it more difficult to dismiss them without reason but tenure does not make educators immune to being fired for reprehensible actions or lack of relevance.  There will always be a few unhelpful and irrelevant professors with tenure. The difficulty the university faces in firing them is not actually tenure’s fault but typically a failure of the system. A good example of this  is the New York City “rubber rooms” where approximately 600 tenured teachers “accused of incompetence and wrongdoing” received their full salaries to sit in a sparse room and do nothing. The rubber rooms happened because of the Education system in New York City, not because of tenure.

The tenure system may be imperfect but it is still essential to academic freedom. Perhaps it is even more important presently since more than 70% of Americans have little to no confidence in the United States government branches. In fact the U.S. Congress  had only 7% of Americans’ confidence according to the 2014 Gallup Poll. Perhaps, preserving tenure is also important to make sure shared governance and teacher unions retain the control of academics over influential political parasites that may prove a later detriment to education.

 

Resources:

Davey, Monica, and Tamar Lewin. “Unions Subdued, Scott Walker Turns to Tenure at Wisconsin Colleges.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 June 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

Goldstein, Dana. “Will California’s Ruling Against Teacher Tenure Change Schools?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 11 June 2014. Web. 04 Oct.2015.

Kendall, Nancy. “What Will Be Lost When Wisconsin Loses Faculty Tenure.” Newsweek.com. Newsweek, 9 June 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

Savage, John E. “The Role of Tenure in Higher Education.” The Role of Tenure in Higher Education. Brown University, n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

Schuman, Rebecca. “A Wisconsin Debacle Shows That Universities Need Tenure Protections More Than Ever.” Slate.com. Slate, 22 July 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

Singer, Alan. “Why Tenure for Teachers Is Important.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 Apr. 2010. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

Strauss, Valerie. “A Case for Why K-12 Teachers Need Tenure.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 14 June 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

“The Truth About Tenure in Higher Education.” Rss. National Education Association, n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

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