I think back to this vicissitude of life not for its absurdity, but for how, in its moment, how expected and normal it felt. (Of course I will!) Which takes me to the meetings of the current UW Tenure Task Force…
Now, there are many ways to approach this narrative, but let me hit on one that has not been discussed in the media, at all, and really should be: all of this task force’s work, based on whim and political posturing, is completely unnecessary. There are faculty on the task force, there are administrators, all who have to take on the extra work of this appointment because their Governor decided to briefly run for president and their legislature wanted… well… something.
Put another way, the legislature—a group of people who portray deep concern with how much time professors actually spend teaching, or how valuable their research really is—certainly had no problem creating a mountain of new work that, by definition, pulls those same people away from their teaching, research, and administrative duties. Just think about this: those who decry “big government bureaucracy” eviscerated a simple, clear, existing policy that then required the formation of
bureaucracy a task force and committees, necessitated that state employees pull themselves away from valuable work at a very difficult moment, required significant travel time… all so we could recreate a system that we already had but in more complicated form.
Q: Who would do this?
A: The uninformed.
Now, as expected, the media narrative is always about how “Faculty!” feel or respond: see recent coverage here and here. And while there is value to this perspective (as a faculty member, I want to be heard about certain issues), the fact that this is the only narrative is troubling. Why? Because there is a more important story to be told, and it is one that the citizens and voters of Wisconsin need to hear: the legislature, without an ounce of research, with nothing but “optics” in mind, rewrote a policy without any idea of the implications, and the result is a mountain of new work and anxiety for people who have better things to do (i.e. their actual jobs).
Don’t believe me? Here’s a little reminder:
A couple of centuries ago, Noel Radomski wrote an important piece that compared the UW’s push for a Public Authority with the system in Virginia. The major takeaway? Virginia did research…and I know this is amazing…actually gathered information over the course of years before taking action. Behold:
In 1988, then Governor Baliles established the Virginia Commission on the University in the 21st Century, which recommended institutional innovation to meet the Commonwealth’s educational and economic needs. During the 1980s and 1990s, several decentralization pilots gave certain public universities more flexibilities in the areas of procurement and capital outlay. In 1996, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Virginia reviewed the structure of the state’s system of higher education, determined the efficacy of the pilots, and made recommendations based on their analysis of these efforts. In 1998 the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education was established, and in 2000 the commission released the report, “Final Report of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education.”
And the Wisconsin method? The Governor needed a quick “I took on professors” talking point and the legislature was upset about a fiction called “jobs for life”… also, “Faculty!” There’s a real story here, and I’m not above using this post to beg the media, any media, to pick up the thread—uninformed decisions have consequences, and none of them are good here. What would a story include? Let me help:
- When the UW and the Governor’s office first proposed the Public Authority (remember that?), there had been, at best, a very brief period of research. More importantly, no previous body had been appointed to study the benefits of such a move. Do we remember what it was like when this proposal was announced? I do. There were legions of questions with no clear answers to be found. People within the UW couldn’t even agree on whether or not sales tax would indeed be the sole source of state support! I feel like a heel for being the master of the obvious that I am… but that’s why you appoint a commission. To have those answers beforehand.
- Fast forward: The state legislature struck tenure from state statutes based on no research, no study, and no information beyond anecdotal quips. (“Jobs for life,” “I had a bad professor once,” “liberals.”) There is absolutely no denying this. If I am wrong, post the commission membership, methods, findings, and recommendations that informed the present decision making. File the FOI request for the research documents that informed the need for change. Please, I’ll wait.
So what, say, might be worth writing about except “Faculty!” are mad about something? How about this: “Knee-jerk legislature hampers UW.” Or, “Efficiency and flexibility? UW Regents, faculty, and staff now mired in redundancy and needless reinvention of the wheel.” (I’m not that good at headlines.)
I have only been observing the Task Force meetings from afar, but even with limited information one thing is abundantly clear: a lot of people in the room don’t have the information they need (because many of them have no familiarity with the tenure process and there was never a study or commission to provide that information). You see this in the stultifying amount of redundancy infecting the policy discussion. In short, there is much talk about creating things we already have. Or, worse, talk of using a system (i.e. merit) that we already have but cannot honor because of lack of funds. There is no other way to say it: even the most basic level of knowledge and research could have prevented this. Note: I fault no one in the room for this and this is not a criticism of the Task Force. In fact, quite the opposite: you have nothing but my praise and respect for trying to swim these waters on short notice. (That’s all we ever have now, right? Short notice. The long game is dead.) And that’s the story—this is what uniformed, partisan griping produces: waste. The posts about the meetings I have seen convey a lot of explanation of the most basic terms, and demonstrate a startling disconnect from basic cause and effect (i.e. no one is going to want to come here if they have even one other option; we already have a merit process that you cut funding for; etc.)
The people in that room are resources we need to allocate in different areas, and now we’re wasting them because the legislature needed to prove some vague point that a $250 million budget cut apparently could not.
You want more examples? Fine.
Demand: We need post-tenure review!
Reality: Um… we already have it. In fact, “Faculty!” are under incessant review.
Demand: We want to reward high performers and get rid of low performers… money will solve this!
Reality: We already have a merit system and, sadly, there have been no merit raises for years even though we still required faculty go through the process. (See: morale in the dumper.)
Demand: We want a tenure process in line with our peers!
Reality: We already have one. See state law, which you are in charge of.
Demand: But other places don’t have it in state law. We want it off the books!
Reality: Okay, let’s shift the existing policy and simply have the regents approve it.
Demand: No! That would be too easy. Basically, we’re doing this for no other reason than that we don’t like you and we don’t know why. So… get busy reinventing the wheel and recreating processes that you already have… just so we can say no.
Reality: Um… efficiencies?
Final Demand: All I know is I don’t like you, and though I don’t know what they are yet, you’ll need to scramble to deal with the consequences. Go Badgers! Final Four!
I haven’t posted anything on this blog in awhile, because I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t said already. Still, I hold out hope for a few things: I have seen media outlets call out the Governor and the legislature for bad decision making, for placing partisan concerns and ready-made legislation before quality of life and local control, but that has yet to make its way to the tenure discussion, where it’s much easier to just throw up your hands and say “Faculty!”
But this is a real story: the state legislature has enacted drastic changes to its university system without research, without even the slightest interest in gathering information beyond anecdote, and the results are real and negative. We are feeling them. We even write about them. Where are the studies and the commissions that put all of this on solid ground? Nowhere. When did we stop caring about this? Efficiency has one basic requirement—research. We all know that, right?
Maybe someone will finally pick this up, but I think I’ll just wait for the next easy editorial piece decrying “Faculty!”, the real world, and so on.
So, in the end, will it have all been worth it? All of the extra hours, meetings, documentation, travel, and hasty research into other systems? All of the arguments, anxiety, and vitae updating? All of the searches to fill the spots of fleeing colleagues, the lost teaching lines, and the pummeled morale? The division, the lost hours, and so much more… just to make a policy we already had?
I hope my nine readers had a wonderful Thanksgiving (Hi mom! Love you! Hope your 8-pound chicken was good). There are many things I am thankful for on a personal level, but professionally, I am thankful for all of my co-workers in the UW, the students, and everyone who supports public education. You really are gold and some of what represents the very best of our state.