Yes, Changes to Tenure are a Big F**King Deal: An Idiot’s Guide to the Tenure Process

kermit the frog
Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Finance passed the University of Wisconsin System Omnibus Motion.  I was going to talk about each questionable provision in the bill like the changes to shared governance that would allow administrators to raid fund balances from student organizations (32 and 37), the deletion of the current law that permits the Board to deduct contributions from the salaries of football coaches for a pension (47), or allowing universities to use students’ social security numbers as their student ID numbers (63).

However, even though much has been focused on changes to tenure, it’s unclear to those outside the system (and to some inside) just exactly what that means.  So, to you, dear readers, I offer a breakdown.

First, the changes:

12: Tenure: Approve the Governor’s recommendation to delete the definition of a “tenure appointment” and language establishing the conditions under which the Board of Regents may grant a tenure appointment to a faculty member. Delete current law specifying that a person who has been granted tenure may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. In addition, delete the definition of “probationary appointment” and provisions limiting the length of such an appointment to seven.

This has been probably one of the most extreme measures in the bill, but also the one most likely misunderstood.

As the Wisconsin State Journal points out, Wisconsin is the only state that has job protections for tenured faculty written into statutes, a primary reason faculty find System campuses a desirable place despite comparatively low salaries. “The GOP motion calls for the Board of Regents to determine whether to have tenure and what it would entail.”  Quickly, System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents swooped in to save the day, claiming “the board would approve a measure to enshrine tenure in Regents policy at a meeting next week — as they’d promised when removing tenure from state law was first floated by Walker in his 2015-17 budget proposal in early February.”  We will see if this promise is, indeed, kept when they meet next week.

However, “Putting tenure in Regents policy carries less weight, especially symbolically, than having the ironclad protection of state law, said Noel Radomski, director of UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. He said the loss of tenure will have immediate impact. ‘If I were other universities, I’d be poaching as many of our top faculty as possible,’ he said, noting that ‘star’ faculty typically have lucrative research grants that travel with them. ‘It’s going to be open season.'”

Here is the thing about tenure.  It’s a dirty word.  When most think of tenure, they think of the one teacher they had in high school who put off retirement to collect a paycheck, or the professor they had who could barely teach, but with the ironclad protection of tenure, was “unfireable.”

Here are some common myths about tenure and how it’s granted.

As the National Association for Education notes, “Faculty members win tenure because their senior colleagues are convinced they can perform with excellence and a great deal of independence. Tenured faculty are, in fact, successful, highly self-motivated people with a great deal of professional pride. Due process is a civilized value; the right measure of job security makes people more productive, not less. To reach the educational standards we all want, we need to have a corps of full-time, experienced faculty in charge of the academic program and committed to the institution. To keep up quality for the next generation of students, we need to keep up opportunities for the new generation of faculty. In the final analysis, who is in the best position to put academic standards first and shelve other considerations? College administrators? Elected officials? Professors are not perfect but they are educators. If it’s solid education we want, tenure matters.”

Myth:
Tenure is a lifetime job guarantee.
Fact:
Tenure-track professors routinely get observed by faculty in their departments every semester, sometimes by two different faculty members. Those observations are intended to maintain integrity and make sure the teaching that occurs in their classroom is up to par. If it is not, the university has the right to not retain them.

Faculty members are assessed by student evaluations in all classes, in all semesters, so that if there is a negative pattern, the university has the right to not retain them.

Faculty members are assessed by the amount of community and professional service in terms of how they positively add to their communities. If they lack in this area, the university has the right to not retain them.

Faculty members are assessed by their professional development in the form of conferences, publications, and other forms of research. As a tenure-track faculty member, even at a non-research 1 institution, it is assumed you will publish, regularly, in peer-reviewed academic journals (most with a 3% acceptance rate if they’re a national journal in that field) as well as conducting research in other areas and in other mediums. If that faculty member fails to publish, or publish in credible arenas, the university has the right to not retain them.

In addition, faculty members are still assessed in the form of post tenure reviews. In fact, most universities have instituted more stringent post-tenure review processes, generally about every five years.


What does that mean? Tenure does not mean one is immune from termination. Having tenure does not protect one from being laid off especially if they don’t continue to excel in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service.  Tenured professors get fired every year for legitimate reasons. Others get fired for illegitimate reasons.  But the idea that it is “impossible” to fire a tenured faculty member is just patently false.

So, why do we have tenure, when did it originate, and what was its original purpose?

In David R. Loope’s “Academic Tenure: Its Origins, Administration, and Importance. South Carolina Commission on Higher Education Staff Position Paper” he states “By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, colleges and universities in Germany and in the United States were striving toward a comprehensive establishment of academic tenure, or the contractual agreement with faculty of continuous employment (Bok 1982, p.5). In the wake ofVanderbilts,Rockefellers, andStanfords who forged new universities with their amassed wealth, an empowered faculty, who were themselves now making important contributions tothe industrialization of western society, needed a shield toensurethe integrity of their teaching and research. American faculty increasingly saw tenure as theultimate guarantor of free speech in the classroom and in the laboratory and as a practice that would ‘prevent the university administration from establishing officialortthodoxies that it might use, directly or indirectly, to inhibit professors from expressing unsettling ideas and unpopular opinions’ (Bok 1982, p. 5). With these ideas in mind, a group of influential faculty members, led by professors from the Johns Hopkins University, formed the American Association of University of Professors (Metzger 1973, p. 135).  By 1915, theAAUP, as flue association became known, had developed a codified set of regulationsregardingthe attainment of tenure and its application on campuses throughout the United States (pp. 151-52). Between 1930 and 1950, with major research institutions and selective liberal arts colleges leading the way, tenure became pervasive throughout the American higher education system (pp. 155-57) and became the benchmark against which most scholars measured their professional success in the academy.”

The “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” states that “Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

In 2015, do we still need tenure as a way of preserving academic freedom and firing without just cause?  I would argue yes.  Take the case of Dr. Steven Salaita.  Or Professor John McAdams.  Or the cases at the University of Oklahoma, Felician College and the University of Southern Maine.

But even if I haven’t convinced you that these job protections are necessary, that they make universities stronger, let me provide you with personal experience.  As an untenured faculty member since 2009, I’ve held my tongue during committee meetings or departmental meetings for fear of angering the wrong person sitting on my evaluation committee who determines, year after year, whether or not I can be retained.  As an untenured faculty member, I can be and have been exploited by senior faculty and filed no report for fear of termination or retribution.  As an untenured faculty member, I would be less likely to speak publicly regarding these budget cuts and policy changes.  As an untenured faculty member, I wouldn’t be blogging right now.  Tenure isn’t just about job security–it’s about having a voice.

Without tenure, professors everywhere would have little incentive to do controversial work or research, question their own administrators, or file grievances against those who are mistreating them either in terms of harassment or gross misconduct.  I highly doubt Professor Richard Grusin would have called for System President Ray Cross’s resignation had he not had the protection of tenure.

In addition,  if tenure is eliminated or even weakened, who in their right mind will want to work in Wisconsin?  As Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab claimed in a recent Facebook posting, “How does one fight without any rights or protections?? The new provisions make it very easy to close my tiny department and the Lab.”  What she is referring to is the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, the nation’s first translational research laboratory aimed at identifying new and effective ways to minimize barriers to college completion so that more students can reach their full potential. As Inside Higher Ed notes, “Goldrick-Rab said she passed up a center directorship at an institution in another state several years ago, fearing that shared governance there wasn’t as strong as it was at Madison. But now she’s actively pursuing opportunities elsewhere, she said. ‘I can’t work in an institution without genuine tenure protections and I will not work in academia without shared governance. We cannot protect students’ interests without it.'”  For those not familiar with Professor Goldrick-Rab, to say she is a “star” is an understatement.  She could work anywhere and is currently a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  To lose her and any of the immensely talented professors in Wisconsin due to this policy change would be criminal.

Lastly, tenure is not just handed down by the tenure fairy.  It is *earned.*  I cannot emphasize that enough.  As Chuck Rybak, Associate Professor of English and Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay states, “Let me put this,  another way, and again, forgive me for the personal tone and reference: tenure is not a perk for me. I did not erroneously stumble into tenure. It was not ‘awarded.’ I earned it. Twice. But more importantly, it is a symbol of my work, skill, and accomplishment. In my professional life, tenure is a source of pride not because I get to sleep on a state yacht, but because it signifies nearly two decades of my life: the study, training, job searches, students and their triumphs, individual and book publications, teaching awards, community work, institutional work, etc. Twenty years of my life and dedication, wiped away with a grudge and a brushstroke. I’m demoralized and, like many of us, wondering, ‘What was all the work for?’ In short, the only people who have done their jobs, who lived up to the promise of the UW, are faculty and staff. This is how we are rewarded. President Cross has said he and the Regents will ‘reinstitute’ tenure. Maybe in name, but not in any form that fulfills the promise and commitments made to us upon being hired (see item #39 in the bill). This is betrayal and it hurts. It has taken its toll on me, my mental health, my ability to focus on my job, my relationships. Have I failed in some way? President Cross, Robin Vos, Alberta Darling, I sincerely ask, where did I go wrong?”

Another faculty member, Mark Karau, Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan stated, “The process to get to tenure is so ridiculously onerous that I feel quite confident in saying that most people who would abuse that privilege will never earn it in the first place. First of all, you have to be willing to spend roughly a decade of your life in graduate school, which is NOT remotely like undergrad. Those who think grad school is just hiding in school for more parties and drinking have NO idea what they are talking about. A doctoral program in particular is an extremely rigorous and difficult journey. There is a reason that the vast majority of those who start such a program never finish it. Then, if you are one of the lucky few who land a tenure track job you are in for another six to seven years of extremely difficult work where you have to, in effect, justify your existence to your department every year by compiling massive amounts of documentation demonstrating your skill in the classroom, your development as a scholar etc. At any point along that spectrum you can simply be let go. All tenure really means is that you no longer have to do that. You are still evaluated on a regular basis, or should be if your school is functioning properly, and can absolutely be removed for negligence or failure. But most people who have successfully navigated that nearly 20 year journey are the kind of people who don’t the need the fear of job loss to do their job well. In fact I will go so far as to say that if you actually do end up having to fire someone who has earned tenure it was your institution that failed. That person most likely should never have earned tenure in the first place.”

So, to be clear, when you see faculty freaking out about the elimination and/or weakening of tenure, please understand we have very good reasons.  You don’t just get tenure by existing for 6-7 years on a campus.  As my partner can attest, I am much happier to live with now that I have tenure, and I worked extremely hard to earn it.  I feel free to speak out against injustices happening in my state or on my campus without fear of losing my job.  I can speak on behalf of untenured colleagues, students, and staff who don’t have those same protections.  Since 2011 and the passage of Act 10, we have seen colleagues resigning from UW institutions at astounding rates.  To say we are hemorrhaging faculty and staff would be an understatement.  My colleague keeps a list of all the faculty and staff who work on our campus on the back of her door.  At the end of the year, she puts an X through the pictures of each who have resigned or retired far before their time.  The list grows every year.  And with these policy changes, that list will grow exponentially.  Vacancies won’t be filled and we will be scrambling to find anyone to teach and work in this state.  That is why yes, my friends.  Changes to tenure are a big f**king deal.

Letter to the Joint Committee on Finance

Senator Darling, Representative Nygren, and members of the Joint Committee on Finance:

Sifting-and-Winnowing-Plaque1My name is Kelly Wilz and I am an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin Marshfield/Wood County. I’m sure you have received many letters from faculty members, concerned about how much this budget will devastate their campuses. I’m sure by now you’ve heard the personal stories of how life altering these cuts will be for those who currently work in the UW System. But I know you’re meeting this week to vote on many of the issues proposed in Governor Walker’s budget. So consider this my hope that maybe my words will give you pause to consider how drastic these proposed cuts will be and an attempt to inform you of the irreparable damage the mere proposal of some of these policies has already had across the UW System. Perhaps this is more for me than for you, because at this point, my voice is all I have.

I’ve always taken for granted the educational opportunities afforded to me as a Wisconsinite. In high school, I looked forward to attending my English classes and can still name every book I read in my World Literature seminar. I thought I hated Chemistry until I had two teachers who made it so fun and engaging that not being excited about the periodic table and understanding how the world works was simply impossible. We had nine choirs and an amazing band and orchestra program. Stevens Point Area Senior High was robust in course offerings so that all students could find somewhere they belonged. When I was offered the opportunity in 2009 to work and live and give back to the community that had given me so much, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.

But reality struck as soon as I began working in the UW System: simply put, the Wisconsin I grew up in no longer exists. State support for education has decreased precipitously under Republican and Democratic governors alike—and Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states that has not restored public funding for higher education to the level it was before 2009. Instead, year after year, we’ve seen more cuts. When my students’ parents went to college in Wisconsin, they covered 20% of the bill, and the state covered the rest.  Last year my students covered 70% of the bill themselves. Next year, due to proposals in this budget, it will be 80%.

Governor Walker has stated publicly, “Our budget changes are only 2.5 percent of the total UW System operating budget.” Sounds reasonable. But as John Conley clarifies in his article “This Is What Wisconsin’s 2.5% Budget Cut Looks Like,” “the cuts must come from the much smaller part of the budget that can be raised or lowered. In reality, the proposal slashes state support for the university system by 13 percent and includes a 25-percent cut in funding for ‘essential educational functions,’ such as instruction, student advising, and programming.” The majority of the eleven comprehensive campuses are offering faculty and staff buyouts. As UW-Milwaukee faculty member Nick Fleisher points out, “For UW, this is bankruptcy reorganization in all but name.”

Though the budget has not even been passed, people have already lost their jobs, some of our most talented educators have retired or found new jobs, searches to replace those who have left have been frozen, and those positions most likely will not be filled. As UW Rock County Dean Carmen Wilson said in her 20 years with the UW Colleges system, this cut is the most challenging yet, claiming that “‘This cut takes us back to funding levels that we got in 1998, so we are running a 21st-century institution on a 20th-century budget.’ Wilson also noted that ’92 percent of UW Rock County’s budget is for personnel, so there is nowhere else to cut back on expenses. In addition, the campus cannot take more students to increase revenue since admissions already accepts whoever wants to come.'” And, as Noel Radomski argued just today, “It appears likely that the UW System will receive significant state budget cuts, and the UW Colleges will not be spared. Unlike the comprehensive and doctoral campuses, the UW Colleges cannot raise tuition revenue by increasing the number of non-resident and international undergraduates and graduate/professional students. Non-resident undergraduate students make up only a tiny percentage of UW Colleges’ enrollment. The UW Colleges do not offer graduate programs. City, county, and state elected officials view international students as outside the scope of the UW Colleges mission — these campuses are a destination for place-bound students to complete their college education at reduced cost in their local communities.”

In the 2013/15 biennium budget, UW-Marshfield/Wood County reduced its budget by $76,633. In 2014, the UW Colleges cut $2.3 million, and positions were eliminated. Now we’re looking at a $6.7 million cut—about 2 ½ times the previous cut, which will mean more layoffs and even fewer resources for students.

You may have heard that we at the UW Colleges have already had to “shrink administration” to handle the proposed cuts. I want to explain what that means. We aren’t firing Chancellors, or Provosts, or those who work in Central Administration. The title and the article itself are misleading. When discussing “shrinking administration,” we are talking about cuts to campus services that directly impact students—financial aid and advising services, services to veterans, counseling services and many more. And again, with 8 years of cuts and tuition freezes, we’ve already drastically cut services to students, forcing those who still work at these campuses to take on the responsibility of any job that is cut. For example, with every year of budget cuts, we’ve had to cut back on mental health and counseling services. My office hours might as well be counseling sessions. Because when you can only afford to hire a certain number of counselors and they are only there on a certain number of days, you don’t just turn away a student who is having a panic attack, tells you they’re considering committing suicide and hurting themselves or someone else, or close the door to a student who has just been physically or sexually assaulted. You stay with them until you find them help. You listen until they’ve calmed down enough to at least get through the rest of the day. You do what you have to do because you’re human and they literally have nowhere else to go.

I simply can’t imagine what my campus and others will look like next year. Our mission is central to the Wisconsin Idea. The UW Colleges are the UW System’s open door, offering an affordable and accessible option for thousands of students. We offer the first two years of a liberal arts education with an Associate of Arts and Science degree, and six campuses currently offer a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree-completion program. We have the lowest tuition in the UW System and offer students the opportunity to pursue a degree while living in their home community at our campuses, online, or through the UW Flexible Option program. We serve more part-time students, more adult undergraduates, and more first-generation college students than any other UW institution. In fact, 60% of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Students from the UW Colleges graduate from 4-year campuses at a 20% higher rate than any other transfer group, including those from technical schools, private schools, and 4-year campuses. And our students—the Wisconsinites staying within their communities, seeking a college degree to improve their lives and others’ in these communities—are the ones who will be most hurt by these cuts.

For example, the mere proposal of these cuts resulted in the elimination of some academic majors and minors and entire departments and programs. Students are registering for fall courses that may not even exist. One of my former students who is now at a comprehensive UW campus stated that due to the elimination of specific course offerings, only 1 out of the 4 classes she’s signed up for will fulfill a requirement she needs to graduate, so she will have to pay for another year of tuition and another year not in the workforce to graduate and make a better life for herself and her 3 children.

And she is not alone. The ability of all students to graduate on time is at stake. The longer they have to wait to complete their coursework, the more they have to pay, and the longer it takes for them to get into the workforce. The inability to get into required classes is a prime driver of time-to-degree across the country. The conversations we have on our campus at our Curriculum and Budget Committee meetings are solely focused on the bottom line. We have been forced to make decisions regarding which classes to offer not based on student need but whether they will enroll and generate revenue for the campus. This means that instead of talking about what classes students actually need to graduate or what faculty are best suited to offer, we have to make decisions based on what will allow our campus to simply remain open. With 8 years of tuition freezes, the inability to cut from certain areas, and a loss of state funding, we end up cutting in places that simply shouldn’t be touched.

My friends often ask, “If working in the UW System is so horrible, why don’t you leave?” And the answer is that despite budget cuts, low morale, and a paycheck that forces me to seek additional work, I love the UW System and I am committed to my students. I feel incredibly privileged to teach at an institution that embodies what a liberal arts education should be, adding to the number of Wisconsinites who can think, who can communicate, who can be good citizens and get the job done. I love that I’m part of an institution that values teaching, scholarship, and community outreach. And I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to work with some of the most dedicated, intelligent, kind, and passionate scholars in the country. I love my job and can’t imagine working anywhere else. Despite what has been the most challenging semester of my teaching career, my students nominated me for the annual Teaching Excellence award this year. And I was not alone. A number of my colleagues won awards as well—one who managed to do an amazing job teaching his courses and publish two books. Because I work amongst some of the best academics in the nation. Tenured faculty who change their syllabus every semester to make it new and exciting to their students. Colleagues who serve as mentors, advisors, counselors, and who have and continue to put the needs of their students before themselves day after day after day. Though the emotional toll is high, they epitomize selflessness. And though every year I’ve seen some of the finest faculty leave UW campuses and universities for greener pastures, Wisconsin is home. This is where I belong.

However, I know I am not alone when I say I am close to my breaking point. Just last week, state employees were informed that our main out-of-pocket health care costs will double next year to avoid the ACA tax on “Cadillac Benefit Plans.” However, unlike other state employees across the nation who have the right to collectively bargain, this decision was just made and will be implemented in January with no say from faculty or staff. I’m hoping, members of the Joint Committee on Finance that, as state workers you also will be paying more for your healthcare next year. You know—solidarity and all.

This, is essentially, yet another pay cut. I will officially make less now as a tenured professor than I did when I started in 2009. In most jobs, your pay is supposed to increase over time—not the other way around. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t make a six figure salary nor will I ever if I spend the rest of my lifetime working in the Colleges. Starting salaries of a professor with a Ph.D. remain at $43,000 and have stagnated. The highest paid professor with a Ph.D. at UW-Marshfield/Wood County, after 23 years of experience and service to our campus, makes $65,521.00.

Most of my colleagues have second jobs, some at other institutions and others in any part time job available. Several who work full time on my campus and at other institutions are eligible for food stamps and reduced priced lunch programs for their children. They live paycheck to paycheck, working as line cooks and waitresses. They continue to pay off student loans and will do so for the next 25+ years at our rate of pay. Just the other day, a tenured faculty member asked if I’d be a reference on her application to Family Video. I bartended for several years during the summer to help pay off my student loans and make sure I didn’t find myself further in debt. As awkward as it was to have my students see me behind a bar, sadly, I couldn’t afford to leave that job because I made more serving alcohol than teaching in the UW System.

What angers me most is that none of this needed to happen. We face a $2.2 billion budget hole for 2015-17 because of $2 billion in tax cuts since 2011. Many simply accept as fact that cuts need to be made to balance the state’s budget. What doesn’t get included in the conversation is the fact that you, our representatives, are choosing to refuse federal funds. If we were to accept the Badgercare Expansion, we’d not only cover 80,000 more people, but much of this “crisis” would go away

“But what happens when the federal government stops paying for the program,” you ask?

Any state can request a waiver that states that after we no longer receive 100% of the funding from the federal government, we can go back to the current situation and not be on the hook for keeping that specific program going. According to the Henry A. Kaiser Family Foundation, “More states are discussing alternative models through waivers as a politically viable way to implement expansion in order to extend coverage and capture federal dollars . . . . To date, five states have received approval of a Section 1115 waiver to implement the Medicaid expansion (Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and most recently Indiana).” These waivers allow the states to implement the Medicaid expansion while also giving them time to figure out how they will fund these programs in the future once they no longer receive 100% of the funding from the federal government. These waivers allow each state to discontinue the program if there are no state monies to fund that particular program once federal money runs out. Wisconsin citizens have been led to believe that this just simply isn’t an option when that is just patently false.

This is also reflected in a report from the Wisconsin Budget Project citing, that “State policymakers could free up $782 million by making three changes: capturing our state’s share of the money Wisconsin taxpayers have been sending to Washington for Medicaid expansions; halting the continued phase-in of an ineffective corporate tax break that has mushroomed in cost; and reallocating $211 million that the bill uses for poorly targeted property tax cuts.”

I don’t understand how these cuts benefit anyone in our state, and it’s an especially hard pill to swallow when these cuts are not only unnecessary, but could have been avoided completely. We are being asked, for yet another year, to do more with less. There is nothing left. State divestment in public education cannot continue. I get it. Defunding public education has become politically easy. As the Nation recently reported, “If states won’t raise taxes or cut back on mass incarceration, gutting higher education becomes the path of least resistance.” But it’s a dangerous path we’ve been walking on for far too long. I urge the Joint Committee on Finance to reject these cuts outright and do what’s best for Wisconsin—for your constituents and everyone you claim to represent. If you have any conscience—any sense of what is right, fair, and just, you will vote against these policies and restore funding to public education. I want to forever call Wisconsin home, but doing more with less, year after year simply wears on the soul. The years of cuts and pummeling the UW System has taken can only go on for so long before what stands for public education in this state only bears a faint resemblance to the robust system in place for so many years. Thank you for your time and consideration. I truly hope you consider these words and the lives of so many when you make your final decisions.

Sincerely,
Kelly Wilz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Communication/Theatre Arts
UW–Marshfield/Wood County
2000 W. 5th St
Marshfield, WI 54449