Scott Walker & The Haunting Terror of Knowledge


We got a huge amount of reader response to my post yesterday about the impending demise of the University of Wisconsin. That’s not terribly surprising. One of the things we’ve learned over the years from audience research is that about half our readers have advanced degrees and a disproportionately large number of them are in education, from K through college. As I said in that post, I’m more interested in the practical effect of what Walker is trying to do than a discussion of tenure in the abstract. Because what Walker is doing is basically like lighting your own house on fire. States can get into financial jams and need to cut spending, either because of budgetary mismanagement or rough economic times. But if you look closely at what Walker is doing there’s no real budgetary imperative behind it. It’s just a desire to destroy a great public institution for the sake of doing it, driven in part by right-wing ideology and in part by the palpable animus Walker himself holds to people who managed to get an education.

A big part of what is happening here is that, to people like Walker, Madison is an anchor of Wisconsin liberalism. But not just liberalism in the partisan political sense, also scarier things like empirical thinking and new ideas. And it’s not just the humanities. What really comes out in this article is how much of the scythe is aimed at the sciences.

I’m a big supporter of liberal arts education. But the value and import of it are subtle and not always easy to capture in hard dollars-and-cents terms. Not so for engineering and sciences. Research universities throw off huge amounts of economic development and affluence from this kind of basic and applied research. There is a separate and important discussion about how much of that publicly-funded research is engrossed by the private sector. That is an important issue. But it is a big public and economic development boon regardless. So what occurred to me reading this stuff was that as big a bummer this is for Wisconsin, there’s a huge poaching opportunity for pro-science states who want to grab these people up, or just states with political leaders who aren’t so afraid of science.

TPM Reader SM makes the point here …

I’m writing to provide some confirmation of your prediction that abolishing traditional tenure will, over the long term, seriously weaken the University of Wisconsin through faculty attrition. I recently stepped down from being head of a medical sciences program associated with a top 25 world ranked research university. As head of the program I ran a number of faculty searches over the years so I have first hand knowledge of contemporary recruiting practices. Our typical junior faculty recruiting ad would bring 150+ applications from post-doctoral fellows, but we would only seriously review the top 30 or so and then interview the top 5. While you might think that with 150+ candidates competing for 1 position, the successful applicant would leap at any offer we made. However, they were actually in command of the situation, as they would also have had offers from 3 or 4 of our research programs at our peer universities (Stanford, UCLA, Oxford, University of Michigan, Yale, etc.). So, we would inevitably end up in a bidding war for the top 2 or 3 candidates. It’s a similar story when you run a search for a mid-career or senior person. While the overall academic market may suck, highly productive professors with deep external grant support can readily jump ship and find tenured positions at other first rank institutions.

So, you’re correct, it won’t happen overnight. However, I can assure you my colleagues around the world have already taken note of what’s happening in Wisconsin and have started to send out feelers to their colleagues in Madison to see if they might be willing to consider leaving. Another point that may not be obvious to your readers is the market for top faculty is world wide. E.g., my current department has faculty from the US, Canada, England, Germany, Israel, and New Zealand. So, a top public research university like the University of Wisconsin is not just competing for faculty with other US institutions, but universities around the world.

Just as interesting to me was this note from TPM Reader FP about the exodus into the private sector …

You totally nailed it in this story. But the fastest decline for UW Madison will not be in the humanities or basic sciences, it will be in engineering and applied science, those practical fields that a supposedly jobs-oriented state government should be most protective of. I’m a former Ivy League tenured engineering professor now leading a growing team in the tech industry that hires quite a few PhDs, including former academics and would-be academics. When I switched, I was a relative rarity, but it is becoming much easier to attract engineering and bioscience researchers with the promise of great teams, big technical resources, and lack of bureaucracy, compared with the ever-increasing grind of academic bureaucracy, overweening administrators. and fighting over a shrinking-in-real-terms Federal research funding pie (not to mention the “postdocalypse“). Sure, we don’t have tenure in industry, but we have plenty else to more than make up for it.

These problems are especially pressing in state schools because of their decreasing state funding and growing state bureaucracy in the name of “accountability.” How could any good applied science or engineering researcher choose UW Madison now when the options elsewhere will be so much more attractive, either in private or well managed public universities, or in industry?

From a purely selfish point of view, this is my team’s gain, but I really worry about the long term damage to a research enterprise that we desperately need to train the next generations of discoverers and inventors.

At the end of the day, the people of Wisconsin aren’t victims here. They elected Walker and his no less aggressive GOP legislatures. Indeed, they’ve reelected them, albeit in low turnout off year elections. But the University of Wisconsin is a great public institution. Indeed, it is one of the first models of the American research university, a model for research and higher education with roots in Germany but which took on a unique and ambitious form in the United States, particularly in its state university incarnation. Ivies get a lot of the glory. But even though the Harvards and Princetons and Yales predate these schools by more than a century in most cases, these glitz universities were themselves remade in the image of these flagship state research universities starting a bit over a hundred years ago.

The country will get along okay without a great University of Wisconsin. But these great universities are public trusts. This really is pretty much like just lighting it on fire. Still, as I said, a great opportunity for pro-science states that want to swoop in and take advantage.