Sheesh, some of the things people say. Well, as you may have noticed, nothing seems to be going right these days. More importantly, I’ve heard some folks ask “How do I respond to X?”, with X often being the most general of talking points. I find these questions very important, and I’m going to take a stab at a few here, saving the most important for last. And as always, my friends in the media, feel free to take any of these questions and run with them.
Removing tenure from state statute “brings us into line with other states.”
My first response to this is, “Why is being in line with other states important?” What is it about this condition that speaks in any way to the quality of the action?
This is how I respond: “If it is so important for us to be in line with other states, why are we stepping so severely out of line with our other legislation, such as the proposed changes to teacher certification, which would make us the most permissive in the nation? Why is it okay to be completely out of line with states there, but we must get in line in regard to tenure? Another example? Before Wisconsin passed Right to Work legislation, a majority of states did not have such laws (I believe we made it a 25/25 split). Furthermore, our Governor has talked about a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage—the obvious intent here is to not fall in line, to avoid the social momentum of acceptance. As more and more states, and hopefully the Supreme Court, affirm that we are finally “getting in line” on this issue, there will be efforts to undermine that trend.
So back to tenure. Why is our legislature selective about when to bring us into line with other states? What are their criteria for being in or out of line? Instead of running to the fold, why are we not setting a powerful example? Of course, none of these questions have an answer because the original justification is not real—it is an empty talking point. Still, if your Uncle Harvey VandenFreedom throws this out, or you find yourself at a “listening” session, these are certainly the things rolling around in my head.
No one with tenure has ever been fired.
First, as someone who has seen this happen in Wisconsin, it’s simply not true.
More importantly, the statement itself betrays a significant misunderstanding of the fact that tenure is both a rank as well as a process. Saying, “No one with tenure has ever been fired” is like me walking into a meeting of surgeons and saying, “My god, 100% of the people in this room are surgeons. Something is wrong with the process here!”
Put another way, many people are fired during the actual tenure process: they are not retained or they are denied tenure. This happens quite frequently. Sadly, I’ve sat on executive committees that have issued such denials. The probationary period for tenure is often 6 years. 6 years. Basically, your employer takes over half a decade to initially decide whether or not to fire you. When I worked in the UW Colleges, my executive committee voted once a year on whether or not to fire me; not all of these votes were unanimous for my retention. This is really important: tenured people are fired all the time during the probationary period. The reason “tenured people are not fired” is because, upon receiving tenure (a designation at the end of a process), those people have already gone through a jaw-dropping meat grinder of requirements.
So, the reason those surgeons in the room are all surgeons? Because a whole bunch of other people did not make it through medical school, or their residency, or whatever. Yes, many jobs have a single interview and then boom, you’re hired. This is one of those jobs with a lengthy process of pre-judgement and assessment. It’s donkey teeth to monkey butts.
More importantly, it’s worth pointing out that if we haven’t fired that many people with tenure, we’ve fired thousands and thousands of people from tenure.
We have been cutting faculty lines for years. If you look at the recent budget news, there are many reports about how empty positions will not be refilled. That sounds harmless, but it’s deeply damaging. If we are talking about a tenure line, then that is a job lost for someone. Someone is not moving to Wisconsin, starting a career, and contributing to the state. (The same applies to all positions, whether faculty or not.)
Beyond that, the thousands upon thousands that we’ve fired from tenure are contingent faculty. These are the people with all of the credentials but none of the benefits. They work hard for pay that is often terrible to borderline criminal. Let’s not pretend that flexibility is about making sure we have the best people in the classroom and firing that one “lazy” tenured icon—it’s about our continued devaluation of labor. We want more for less and our overlords have decided that “flexibility” is synonymous with “dehumanize.” The language of austerity destroys all human qualities, particularly empathy.
The point for any moral society or state, on this specific question, should not be “why aren’t we firing tenured people?” It should be “Why aren’t we hiring tenured people?” The first position is an attack on quality of life, while the second is an affirmation of it.
That’s it. Peace and soul.
Dave Vanness brings mad skillz to the turntables.
Kelly Wilz goes the full Moses.
Nick Fleischer breaks it down like an enzyme.
My Usual Disclaimer
I direct this more to any campus readers I may have, but maybe this applies in more ways that I know.
My heart is with every single UW employee who stand to lose jobs, security, and benefits—faculty, staff, etc, etc. My heart is with all students, alumni, and supporters. My writing focuses on faculty because it’s my area of knowledge, the one that I am dealing with directly, and the one that has me in the most precarious mental/stress point of my life. Please know that.