The Corner

The Wisconsin Legislature Takes On University Tenure

The academic world is reacting strongly against this move in the Wisconsin legislature:

The Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 Friday to approve a proposal that would eliminate tenure from state law and allow tenured faculty to be laid off even if a school isn’t in a declared financial emergency. The proposal would also weaken faculty influence in setting policy and would cut the University of Wisconsin (UW)’s budget by $250 million over the next two years, down from a $300 million cut that was proposed by Walker.

To be clear, the law wouldn’t eliminate tenure entirely but would simply eliminate the statutory entitlement. The university system itself could still provide tenure (and has promised to do so), but the law is undoubtedly a first step to weakening or ending tenure protections. 

As someone who’s litigated many, many academic freedom cases, I have profoundly mixed feelings about this move. First, I know and understand that tenure is designed to guarantee freedom, to prevent political pressures from impacting scholarship. It’s designed to preserve academic independence. In fact, tenure has protected a number of outspoken conservative professors (including some of my clients), men and women who would have been fired long ago without tenure protections.

At the same time, however, academic independence is a fiction. In the real world, leftist groupthink dominates academic departments, conservatives are easily weeded out before tenure – mostly through the hiring process itself – and even many (if not most) tenured dissenting professors live “in the closet” to avoid the social and professional consequences of public disagreement on key cultural or scientific issues. The result isn’t freedom but instead permanently entrenched ideological conformity.

Yet this same overwhelming conformity means that the immediate consequence of lifting tenure protections wouldn’t be greater diversity but even worse ideological persecution as the few conservative professors would face hostile departments stripped of the bulk of their legal protections. Ending tenure without simultaneously overhauling departments (including departments’ academic missions and hiring practices) simply won’t contribute to the cause of liberty. Yes, it might make it easier to make financially-motivated cuts, but it’s hard to see any short or medium-term increase in true academic freedom.

Finally, there are downsides to tenure beyond its effect on liberty. Place any group of people outside of the normal boundaries of accountability, and they are likely to abuse that autonomy. Tenured professors are no exception, with their ranks including a host of colleagues who simply coast on their job security. They care little for teaching, behave horribly towards students and colleagues, and even slack off their research efforts. They occupy seats that could be taken by better, more conscientious teachers and scholars, and no one can move them until they retire or die. While preserving true academic freedom is worth tolerating a limited number of deadbeats, the deadbeats become much less tolerable if academic freedom is failing.

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