UW Struggle: Scrap the Tenure File Edition

Man... my second tenure file was, like, 500 pages.
Hey holmes… my second tenure file was, like, 500 pages.

Tomorrow is convocation on my campus. I like our convocation because the campus is lovely and I get to see people who work very hard in all different corners of our university—faculty, staff, students, administration, new hires—my heart buoys when our collaboration is so abundantly visible, when so many of us, usually apart, arrive in one place for the same event.

A number of those present will be tenure-track faculty, some of them new hires in need of guidance, mentorship. Some will be associate professors who hope to go up for full professor soon. What lies ahead for this specific group of professionals is a deeply challenging amount of work and pressure, with much of those forces taking the form of a bottomless pit of self-documentation, i.e., the tenure file.

Tenure no longer exists in Wisconsin. We have entered the era of pretendure. The only moral thing to do, right now, is abolish the tenure file. If the reward for compiling the file no longer exists, then the file should no longer exist.  As someone who has compiled two tenure cases for the UW, both of them required and successful, I can say without hesitation that I spent hundreds of hours collecting, organizing, and writing these materials. During my 3rd year in the UW Colleges, I missed my sister’s wedding ceremony IN FRANCE because of a January deadline for submitting an onerous retention file that resulted in me producing hundreds of unread dossier pages.

And for what? Nothing.

The state has reneged on its side of the agreement; all of those hours of work and worry and preparation were for nothing. Because of the new layoff provisions inserted into Wisconsin state law, all faculty are contingent. Asking people who are your employees to spend this much time on documentation that secures them nothing is a staggering waste of our most valuable resource. It is unethical to ask for such a personal commitment for the sake of mere performance. Why ask for such documents, which no longer have the end promised for the means, when these hard-working professionals could be working on pedagogy, research, job searches, or more importantly, spending time with people and activities they cherish? I hope that all of us, across the UW system, can stop pretending that tenure is real and use this opportunity to treat each other better. To lessen the load in a time when people stand on the scales out of pure meanness and spite. I have long argued that, within the academy, we are often our own worst enemies, but with a legislature that loathes our very existence, it truly is time to rely on each other. We have an important mission. A vital one. A mission that is approaching, by default, civil disobedience. Let’s make it easier for each other to accomplish our goals and missions in these times when short-sighted governance and voting patterns make this mission’s difficulty something that would make Sisyphus blush.

That’s why I’m calling on the tenure task force, President Cross, and faculty senates, personnel councils, and departments across the UW system to begin discussions and processes for eliminating the tenure file as a condition for achieving pretendure. A CV and/or collection of short activity reports is enough. Do we really need more than that? Let’s free ourselves, and our colleagues, from this taxing burden now rendered meaningless by the state government’s seizure of the earned property right that was the reward. Do we really want to make this much work for people? For each other? And beyond asking individuals to produce the documents, over the course of years, do we want committees packed with more employees to spend hours reading/skimming this work? Again, for what? The same applies for people who desire to go up for full professor. A CV will do when your time remaining on the job might be shorter than the time working on the file.

There are many reasons why the UW system should eliminate tenure files as a requirement for what we are now calling tenure and promotion:

1) There is no such thing as tenure in Wisconsin. It is in name only, thus “pretendure.”

2) Ray Cross and the people working on the new tenure task force say that this task force isn’t all for show, that we will draft meaningful policies that do something or other in relation to our peers. I admire this belief, but the reality is wrong and impossible. Why? The law is now as follows (h/t Nick Fleisher):

Layoff due to budget or program decision: Modify current law to specify that the Board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists as under current law.

Specify that the Board may layoff or terminate a tenured faculty member, or layoff or terminate a probationary faculty member prior to the end of his or her appointment, when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection. (emphasis mine)

Notice the emphasis above: it is not that the UW System President “may,” not that Chancellors on specific campuses “may,” the board may, meaning, the Board of Regents who are now nearly all Walker appointees and who specifically derailed an attempt to alter the above language and return it to the state’s traditional definition of tenure. Don’t believe me? Here’s a snippet from an interview with new Regent Blaine Chase VandenFreedom, before he was even actually on the board:

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Grebe said the UW needs to be more efficient, suggesting that could mean eliminating degree programs on some campuses if they’re available on others. He used a business analogy to make his point.

“If you work at a company that has multiple manufacturing locations, you might not do the same thing at every single one of those locations, because your customer base may be different,” Grebe said. “You may specialize in one area or another on certain products or types of operations and processes.”

Grebe also said he thought the state was already contributing enough public money to the university. (emphasis mine)

In short, these changes were made to state law for no other reason than to fire people who have tenure, an earned property right. And yes, this will happen unless the public changes its voting patterns soon.

3) The tenure system for people like me, and everyone currently on the UW tenure-track, is a performance-based evaluation system; therefore, the result/reward was also performance based. After going through the meat grinder of the tenure track and repeatedly proving high-quality performance, you could only be fired based on your performance and the presentation of just cause for doing so. But with the result/reward being no longer performance based, why are we asking for a behemoth performance-based tenure file from people who can be fired the very next day because Regent Vanderbutt thinks that having three programs in the state that focus on X is too much (yet three Walmarts in barfing distance of each other is the Liberty Bell of our times)? It is unfair to ask for this amount of work. Again, it’s unethical. Don’t shackle talented people with processes that no longer apply to our present. Free them.

It’s time we faced the reality that all UW faculty are contingent and were made so for a reason. I have been scolded by some colleagues who disagree, largely because it is beneath their reputations. I disagree. A CV is enough now. Class observations are enough. Period. So instead of forcing valuable employees to put together and scale another Everest tenure file, just because that’s the way it has always been done, let’s clear time and space for each other. Let’s use that time and space on more productive activities with a more meaningful, tangible result. The result of the tenure file no longer exists in Wisconsin. Thus eliminating the tenure file is one of the first meaningful changes we can make to the amount of work we give, and I would argue that outside of teaching and research, that work should decrease dramatically based on changes to the laws regarding shared governance. I imagine many legislators and Wisconsin citizens would agree—let’s rededicate those countless hours to collaboration, reflection on teaching, experimentation, research, learning to play an instrument, trying something new, being with family, or taking a walk by the water.

We need to be better to each other. I will speak the truth about something I would not normally share: my mental health has suffered because of our poor treatment and bullying by the state, and also from the refusal for our central leadership to be a prominent voice for people who were hurting and desperately needed that voice. I do not say that for sympathy. I don’t want or require sympathy. I want relief for me and for people who are asked to carry so much now for the promise of so little. Self-satisfaction, the knowledge that you truly are making a difference, can carry one only so far down our path. That is why we need to clear space. I suggest we start with the tenure file, which is essentially an application for a job that no longer exists.

So I’ll ask: Am I wrong? Consider this post an open question. A collaboration. I am proposing we eliminate the tenure file because the end that justified the means no longer exists. I don’t mind being wrong. I have very little ego or investment in being right in my life—I just want to be better, in all things.

Carry on UW faculty, staff, supporters, and students. The praise you deserve is immeasurable.

8 thoughts on “UW Struggle: Scrap the Tenure File Edition

  1. Thank you, as always, for your posts. They are one of the only things that makes being a UW tenured faculty member feel tolerable right now. So, I would say this is a two-part issue. On the one hand, I couldn’t agree with you more about freeing ourselves from work we have previously done, often for free, for the UW system. The merit pay/annual performance reviews that we are required to do each year drive me UP THE WALL–the ultimate example of work that is done for literally no reason anymore. Its been at least 8 years since merit pay raises were even a glimmer in our pocketbooks. I serve on lots of committees over the Summer (including IRB) and I catch up on all the writing and other work I didn’t get done during the academic year because our jobs already require too much of us. Now that I am not part of a shared governance system, Im not giving the state a single extra second of my labor. They will get exactly what they pay for, and be stunned when they realize how much less that is than what they have gotten from so many of us. I will not serve on committees that actually have no voice, and I wont participate in processes that have no purpose. That’s what I told myself this Summer. But here’s the second part of the problem: in practice, its never so easy to determine where the university ends and I, morally, begin. Do I stop working with students over the Summer because of the state, thus screwing them over and leaving many with another semester of dissertation credits to pay? Do I refuse to even contemplate that a particular committee might actually have a positive effect on the university? Do I give up, indeed, on the university as an institution in which I believe and for which I happily give time, energy, and support, even though Im furious about where it is being steered right now? More generally, what are the politics of any of my actions right now? If I stay, do I indicate to the legislature and the country and the world that its fine to change the terms of our contract so drastically because no one will really respond? If I leave, do I achieve for the legislature exactly what they want by helping to further weaken the university? If I say let’s acknowledge the tenure is gone and stop the work of tenuring junior faculty members, do I assure that the rationale for tenure is firmly removed? Do I set my junior colleagues up for greater failure because the structure of the tenure process (and for me, the full professor process) can help assure they/I am actually able to move if/when my department is repurposed? I have found the last months to be some of the hardest of my life. They are hard not only because we and our work and our institutions have been deeply denigrated, but also because for me, at least, the moral compass that has directed my work here, at a public university, has been demagnetized by these months. I don’t know anymore how to do this work healthily and well. I am here first and foremost because I believe in public education. Can I be here anymore and say that seriously? Can I be in any US higher education institution, almost, and say that anymore?

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