Can College Tenure Survive the 2016 Election?

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University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank recently sent a letter to the governor, Scott Walker, asking him to veto a provision in the state’s new budget that would weaken the tenure provisions of the university’s faculty. The Wisconsin legislature wasn’t making a value judgment — at least not in the budget — it was simply considering codifying state law to say that during fiscal belt-tightening, faculty members in the state’s system of higher education could be laid off as a result of budget cuts or changes in program direction.

Naturally, the University of Wisconsin faculty began shrieking about threats to “academic freedom,” but Chancellor Blank took a wiser approach. Noting that faculty at Wisconsin’s “peer institutions” (rival schools) can only be laid off “when there is just cause, financial emergency or program discontinuance for educational reasons,” Blank suggested that altering that formula would make Wisconsin a less attractive professional destination. In other words, the school would be at a competitive disadvantage with other universities in attracting and retaining top talent.

Although the letter had little chance of changing Walker’s mind, the chancellor made a valid argument, and she did so in a measured way calculated to appeal to Republicans who trust the wisdom of the marketplace. Ultimately, the state’s legislature gave Walker less in the way of higher education budget cuts than he sought; and the hard decision on tenure was kicked down the road. The change in the law now empowers the Board of Regents of the state’s university system to set tenure policies, but the regents have exhibited little inclination to do so.

In the meantime, Scott Walker announced he’s running for president, an event which precipitated overheated responses by a few University of Wisconsin faculty members. The behavior of one prominent U-W professor was so ugly it not only undermined her argument, it raised the question of why taxpayer-supported institutions can justify retaining tenure at all.

Most college administrators and professors are likely aware that the nation’s outdated higher educational model is a hot topic on the 2016 campaign trail. What they may not realize is that it’s a discussion that may have consequences when the election is over. The reason is that both major political parties are dissatisfied. The practices under discussion include tenure, top-heavy staffs, and Luddite-like resistance to using technology to improve teaching methods. Those factors have led to stratospheric costs and swelling student debt — not to mention a mutated brand of identity politics that offends Republicans and worries many Democrats because it undermines their working-class roots.

On the Democratic side, 2016ers Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley have all called for “tuition-free” or “debt-free” higher education for students who attend public colleges. So far, they really haven’t gotten into the reform side of things — during primary season, it’s mostly about income redistribution — but it’s obvious that such a big change would create pressure to control costs.

Kevin Carey, a thoughtful liberal education expert, has been sketching out blueprints for just that kind of change. Declaring that today’s colleges and universities “are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence,” Carey envisions a digitally driven “University of Everywhere” that will lower the price of higher education to a fraction of its current costs while greatly enhancing its quality.

On the Republican side, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of a plethora of 2016 presidential candidates, calls higher education a “cartel,” which he says must be broken up.

“Within my first 100 days, I will bust this cartel by establishing a new accreditation process that welcomes low-cost, innovative providers,” he vowed. “This would expose higher education to the market forces of choice and competition, which would prompt a revolution driven by the needs of students — just as the needs of consumers drive the progress of every other industry in our economy.”

Rubio is joining a fight Scott Walker has already been waging. It began, as did the Wisconsin tenure battle, over the governor’s desire to curb excessive government spending, initially on overgenerous pensions for state government employees. This turned into open warfare between Walker and his state’s public employees’ unions. So far, Walker has prevailed. He’s made some enemies along the way, however. One of them is a singularly intemperate (and long-tenured) University of Wisconsin sociologist named Sara Goldrick-Rab.

As the last school year ended, Goldrick-Rab apparently began trolling social media sites to find incoming Wisconsin freshmen — and trash the school to them. On June 5, she reached out on Twitter to six graduating high school seniors who had pictured themselves in their caps and gowns with a tweet that said “On Wisconsin!” — the school’s fight song.

“I hate to bring bad news, but…” Goldrick-Rab tweeted to them, before linking to a critical op-ed about impending budget cuts. When one of them tweeted back to her that they were not dissuaded, she answered sarcastically, “Oh good. I thought you want a degree of value. Too bad.” Later, she added that if Gov. Walker’s budget passed with any changes to tenure, “we are all leaving. No joke.”

Three weeks later, as Wisconsinites prepared for Walker’s presidential announcement, the professor was at her keyboard again. “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler,” she wrote. “There are so many — it's terrifying.”

The next day, she continued her unhinged rant: “No doubt about it — Walker and many Wisconsin Legislators are fascists. Period. They proved it today.”

Supporters of tenure invariably say they are defending “academic freedom,” which they define as the ability to say or read unpopular things in the cause of intellectual exploration. That sounds good until one stops to think that what is really happening on college campuses in this county is that free inquiry is being stifled by identity politics and speech codes. In this constricted marketplace of ideas, the only ones allowed to flower are so narrow and wrongheaded they could never pass muster in the real world. One case in point is the “BDS Movement,” a boycott of Israel. This is an idea so stupid and unjust that few politicians standing in this country for election would even mention it. Yet the taxpayers are underwriting it.

Here’s another way to test whether tenure has skewed things — and why heeding the marketplace can be instructive: Find six enthusiastic young people who’ve been hired by your company. Then badmouth your company to those people. Also tell them you’re unhappy and can’t wait to leave. Then compare the CEO to Adolf Hitler. The next day say publicly that the CEO and other company executives are fascists.

Then see if you still have a job.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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