Phi Beta Cons

Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill

Proposed changes to Wisconsin's tenure law are not as drastic as opponents claim.

Over the weekend, members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted unanimously to approve a resolution opposing legislation that would curtail shared governance and tenure in the University of Wisconsin system. Various opponents of the legislation have called it “a seismic change” and a “major blow to academic freedom.”

But it’s not clear that the legislation would really make much of a difference to most faculty. As the Chronicle of Higher Education has pointed out, it would essentially put them on the same footing as university employees in the rest of the country:

Wisconsin stands apart in how it has enshrined shared governance and college faculty members’ job protections in state law. They first entered into state statute through the legislation that merged a state-college system with the University of Wisconsin in the early 1970s.

Although a few other states, such as California and Washington, have laws touching upon college faculty members’ tenure rights, most of those provisions cover only instructors at community colleges, stemming from historical ties between those colleges and public schools. Nearly every other state leaves it up to colleges’ governing boards or systems to set the terms of employment for their faculty members.

In other words, Wisconsin’s legislation, if passed, would give faculty members more or less the same benefits they enjoy in my home state of North Carolina, where tenure is protected by various board policies. One recent news story illustrates the power of tenure: today, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a UNC-Chapel Hill professor caught in an Argentinian drug sting. The court decided that the university’s actions – placing him on unpaid leave while they decided his fate – violated his rights as a tenured professor.

Hardly ”a major blow to academic freedom.”

Jenna A. RobinsonJenna Ashley Robinson is the president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Before becoming president, she was the center's director of outreach. She was previously the ...

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