Goodbye, Madison

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As he readies to run for president and grabs whatever low hanging fruit on the conservative agenda tree he can find, Scott Walker is now planning to strip tenure from professors in the University of Wisconsin higher education system.

This will undoubtedly be portrayed and fought over as a matter of academic freedom. Tenure is among other things in place to protect scholars from the patronage and political demands of the moment and incentivize independent scholarship free of ideological, market or political pressures. That is 100% true. And by and large it is a good system – especially when understood in the larger context of academic life.

But let’s be honest: there’s basically zero way you win a fight in the political realm to defend lifetime job security for relatively high paid professors who do zero manual labor.

So I want to take a look at a different part of this. The crown jewel of the Wisconsin university system is the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It is one of the top research universities in the country and the world. With this move, you will basically kiss that jewel goodbye. To me this is the more salient reality than whether you think academic tenure is a good thing or not in itself.

If this happens, over time, the professors who can will leave. And as the top flight scholars and researchers depart, so will the reputation of the institution. So will graduate students who want to study with them, the best undergrads, money that flows to prestigious scholarship. Don’t get me wrong. Not in a day or a year or even several years. But it will. If you don’t get this, you don’t understand the economy and incentive structure of university life.

Over the last couple decades, especially in the humanities, we’ve seen develop what increasingly looks like an aristocracy of tenure. The lucky PhDs land tenure and they’ve got a pretty good gig. In some cases they have a great gig. But the system is sustained by an army of TAs, adjuncts, other non-tenure track positions and tenure track assistant professors fighting for tenure. In some cases realistically, in other cases not at all realistically, all those folks are fighting for the hope of landing tenure at some point. Take that away and the whole system of sweated academic labor comes crashing down.

But again, that’s bigger picture. Let’s look at the medium picture. Take tenure out of the University of Wisconsin and the people who can will – over time – leave. If we had a single national system, that would be one thing, as it would effect all equally. The departees wouldn’t have any place to go. But it won’t. Private universities, with the most outrageously high tuitions, will not do this. They are self-governing institutions. And even to the extent that boards of trustees are in tension with professors, they are driven by the quest for institutional prestige, not scoring political points. So the top academics will go there. The net effect of all this will be to kill off or bleed dry great state universities which are yes, still pricey, but not as crazy expensive and hard to get into as the prestige private universities.

In short, it’s a big boon for education for the very rich.

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