Why State Lawmakers Must Support Tenure at Public Universities

June 24, 2015

In the past few weeks, I’ve been in the midst of a debate over tenure for college professors in Wisconsin.

This has implications for public higher education across the country. I know this as both the chancellor of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, in Madison, and as an economist who has helped shape national policy.

Two key points have been misunderstood. First, the University of Wisconsin hasn’t abolished tenure. Rather, we’re becoming like virtually every other state university, with tenure enshrined in university-system policy rather than state statute. At Madison, I’m committed to keeping academic freedom as robust as it’s always been.

We are strongly urging legislators to change the proposal that ignited this debate. It created the impression that faculty members could be laid off when minor program changes occur. We are asking that this legislative language be removed or brought in line with guidelines from the American Association of University Professors, which allow the removal of tenure when there is just cause, financial emergency, or program discontinuance for educational reasons.

Even if the language is not changed, we have the authority to write strong administrative policy indicating when and how we will lay off faculty members. I have obtained assurances from the presidents of the UW System and its Board of Regents that Madison may write its own policy on faculty layoffs, which I expect to be as strong as the policy language among our peers. A faculty group is being appointed to craft these policies, which I expect to be adopted before year’s end.

But make no mistake — our faculty’s trust in elected leaders has been shaken by our Legislature’s abrupt action and lack of consultation with those most affected. And like many others, I expect this same debate to play out in other states and on other campuses over time.

Which brings me to the second misunderstanding about what tenure is and why it matters. Critics dismiss tenure as "a job for life." Tenure, however, is not about protecting people but rather about protecting open conversation and debate. It is about academic freedom — the ability to research and teach on all topics, without fear of reprisal.

Public universities, as state-chartered institutions, may be particularly prone to intervention when faculty members express politically unpopular ideas. On our campus, the economist Steven Deller put out an analysis this year about right-to-work legislation as state lawmakers were considering that issue. Professor Deller is scrupulous about his objectivity, and this was a balanced pro-and-con piece. But a state lawmaker called it "partisan, garbage research." That lawmaker is entitled to express his opinion. But we need strong tenure policies to ensure that those who do research on controversial topics aren’t intimidated into silence.

This isn’t a matter only of academic freedom, but also of competitiveness. Top faculty researchers can generate job offers at many universities, and our ability to attract and retain them would be harmed if we had weaker tenure protections than other campuses do. Public universities are already at a financial disadvantage compared with our wealthier private peers when competing for top talent. Political attacks only make service at public universities even less attractive.

As an economist and policy maker, I can tell you America needs great public research universities now more than ever. We are an engine of innovation and economic development, generating patents and start-up companies, helping industry solve problems and move ideas from the lab to the marketplace. Our Madison campus generates $24 in economic impact for every state-tax dollar invested.

Public universities are also where most college graduates earn their degrees and are far more likely to be where low-income and first-generation students enroll for bachelor’s degrees. Public universities create upward mobility, opening new worlds of learning and opportunity.

In speaking out in support of strong tenure protection, I and others are not simply slamming the door on those who criticize how we operate. There are legitimate concerns about affordability, student debt, and the efficiency and effectiveness of university operations. Elected leaders, whatever their party, have a right and a duty to guide a state’s higher-education system.

But we need partnership and collaboration. The question that’s not being asked is how state and university leaders can together strengthen these institutions and the value they create for taxpayers.

In 1894, in response to an effort to fire Professor Richard Ely for his outspoken progressiveness, the Wisconsin Board of Regents declared that the university "should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found." Public universities need to continue the sifting and winnowing that they have long done so well.

Rebecca M. Blank is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. From 2009 to 2013, she served in the U.S. Department of Commerce.