UW Struggle: Let’s Pretend We’re Not Talking About Tenure, Ok?

Are these things possibly connected?

While doing other work, I’ve peripherally absorbed what’s happening at the Wisconsin Board of Regents meeting, and I’m struck by the following tweets:

What follows is not a commentary on the Tweeter, but merely an observation on the content. Referenced above are two pressing issues (among many) for the UW: the dismantling of meaningful tenure protections for faculty, as well as the proposed ban on research using fetal tissue. If you look at the timing of those tweets, they appear as one agenda item has moved into another, as if they are separate matters for discussion.  I can’t help but interpret these issues as being of a piece somehow.  Should they be discussed as such? Maybe, but don’t expect that to happen. As a matter of fact, the compartmentalization here is so prevalent that Chancellor Rebecca Blank says this legislation is more damaging than, well, a quarter of a billion dollar budget cut… with no mention of tenure protections at all:

The Wisconsin State Journal provides an expanded look at her remarks:

If the bill became law, Blank said, it would force UW-Madison researchers who use fetal tissue to leave the state to continue their work, driving top faculty away from the university and badly harming its reputation. “This is a direct hit,” Blank said. “This is a threat to one of our strongest areas in terms of our reputation in the sciences.”

If you don’t know the backstory on the fetal tissue issue as it applies to the UW, then one should know who Rep. Andre Jacque is—basically, he is someone who spends a lot of time thinking about what women should and should not be allowed to do with their bodies, so an issue involving fetal tissue and Planned Parenthood is right in his wheelhouse. In fact, he directly admits that the UW inspired his proposed legislation and that he is making the system a primary target:

More than 100 UW labs that employ more than 1,400 people use cells from abortions in their research, Dr. Robert Golden, dean of the UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health and vice chancellor for medical affairs, said at a public hearing last month.

Jacque said he didn’t want to work in a field where that practice was acceptable.

“In my biological coursework, professors said if we have the potential to expand the boundaries of science, then we can put off the ethical questions and deal with them later,” Jacque said. “I became concerned (by that attitude) very early on in my biology coursework.”

Jacque ultimately graduated with a degree in political science. He took office in the state Assembly for the first time in 2011. His fetal tissue bill was one of the first items he brought forward.

Prominent health organizations, biomedical industry advocates and college officials object to the bill. They say such a ban would slow, weaken or shut down critical research of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome and other serious health conditions affecting thousands of families across the globe. (emphasis mine)

If you look at the full article, you will see Jacque repeatedly referring to his own concerns (I/me) while people actually knowledgeable in the field refer to larger interests and a broader “we.” But what else would you expect?

To review: We have a single legislator who, based on personal ideology,  has targeted an important area of academic and scientific research, and is moving to eliminate the university’s involvement in it. Sound familiar? In short, we’re talking about program elimination. Or is it “modification”? The only difference here is the ends, not the means—the faculty in question won’t have to worry about unemployment.

Regardless, Rebecca Blank worries this will chase away “top” faculty, research dollars, etc. But because we’re talking about a very specific scientific issue, it is presented as being unrelated to tenure protections. When Blank says “top faculty,” as many do when talking about people leaving or being nimbly flex-o-vated out of a job, there are no specific names mentioned. Why? Which faculty? Name who is doing the research and then explain why we want those people protected from political and ideological assault.

If you look at the tweets above, I’m also struck by how some regents are clearly upset by the move to restrict research, yet they will sit and wait for “recommendations” from a purely advisory tenure committee. The board has already shown its hand in this regard, declining to speak against the new layoff provision slipped into the recent budget bill.

So how are these things any different? What if we weren’t talking about fetal tissue? Just because we’re talking about a specific piece of legislation doesn’t mean that tenure is not important here. What if the area of research were less “cutting edge” and involved “middle” or “lower” faculty? What if they are less likely to be associated with large grants? What if we we’re talking about research on labor practices that reveals unpleasant data about “right to work,” Act 10, or educational policy as it relates to charter schools? What if we were talking about a program dedicated to LGBT issues? Or Racism? The top faculty/researchers Blank describes as potentially leaving would do so on their own accord, because of course they can run into the open arms of other jobs, whether in or outside of academia. But what about those working in a different field under fire? My sense is that faculty with a narrower range of mobility would be forced into silence. What are the other possibilities when you can’t just pick up and fluidly relocate your “top faculty” self?

By not connecting this issue to tenure protections, Chancellor Blank and sympathetic regents are signaling, inadvertently or not, that such protections are only important on a case-by-case basis. This is high profile and outrageous. Of course we are against it! Or even, since these faculty are leaving, rather than being fired, tenure and academic freedom are irrelevant here. But what happens when clear connections such as doing this research = saving lives are not as readily visible? I mean, who speaks to the press and laments that an English or History professor is leaving the state?

I know there are linguistic masters out there who could break down the compartmentalization that occurs here, specifically how we can talk about ideological attacks and the purpose of meaningful tenure protections in the abstract while rendering that connection invisible when confronted with the particular.

Am I wrong about all of this? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Anyway, I have to get back to work now. Take care, folks.

One thought on “UW Struggle: Let’s Pretend We’re Not Talking About Tenure, Ok?

  1. you are so absolutely correct on all points. Try to keep these points up front and center: 1. Jacque is driving this ( who or what is behind him?). 2. Blank’s statements are correct. 3. However, she has been very and overly selective in what and whom to back and why?What about the most important issues–what about the loss of real tenure protections and attacks on academic freedom? What about all the losses and the horrible morale, and the intimidation of faculty and staff AND apparently Chancellor Blank herself by this ‘government’ in Wisconsin? Where is our outrage and our ability to fight outrageous acts that hurt our state and the future educational and health opportunities for all of the children and adults in and out of the state of Wisconsin?

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