Friday, June 05, 2015

The Threats to Wisconsin's University System

Bascom Hall, University of Wisconsin
At the end of March I blogged briefly about acclaimed linguist and sociopolitical critic Noam Chomsky's Jacobin essay, "The Death of American Universities" (whose link somehow became mangled and led to a junk site--my apologies). As part of my preface, I noted that much of what Chomsky argues in this short transcribed talk, delivered in February to members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, would be familiar to anyone working--and paying even passing attention to the changes--in academe today, though the effects are perhaps more evident in public institutions, which are more economically vulnerable because of their reliance on shrinking state and federal support, and smaller institutions lacking the massive endowments of the elite research universities and liberal arts colleges.

Even at the wealthiest institutions, however, a neoliberal ethos has increasingly become preponderant. Nearly all US universities today are increasingly viewed and run as quasi-businesses, with all that that conceptual shift entails. Tuition costs and fees grow ever more exorbitant; students are labeled and treated like consumers; the administrative bureaucracy waxes, paying itself at near corporate levels; fiscal austerity and competition for funding have become the baseline for most aspects of the university except the sports programs and high-end infrastructure renovation; the ranks of contingent faculty swell and tenured positions dwindle; donors are given outsized say (cf. the University of Illinois and the Stephen Salaita case); market-based policies become standard; and a fixation on promoting what elites in society believe will translate into direct benefit for corporations, or what is popular--and preferably what falls at the nexus of the two (computer science? biomedical engineering? financial engineering and sciences?)--gains emphasis at the expense of all else, with concomitant corporate-style jargon, acronyms and programs proliferating like kudzu.

I could give numerous examples of how this has played out at institutions across the country, including my current one, where, as I noted three years ago when I arrived here, the three-university system, and particularly the universities in Newark and Camden, found themselves in a fight for their lives. The story of that particular battle is a complex one, but let me just note that it was student, staff, faculty, administrative, union, and alumni pushback that not only saved the university, but perhaps made those who were seeking yet again to transform it for the worse to step back, at least temporarily, and rethink their actions. We have subsequently been engaged, at our university, on the conceptualization and development of a strategic plan that has been a model of shared consultation and conversation. When I was in Montana this past spring, several professors at that state's university whom I met there, and who were not directly linked to the conference I attended, bemoaned the constantly shrinking budgets and the onslaught of attrition. They spoke with admiration of what had occurred in New Jersey.

Just last week, the  University of North Carolina's Board of Governors' educational planning committee announced the elimination, discontinuation, consolidation, and demotion of whole departments across the entire university system, including one at flagship campus University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a policy the full board later voted up. Over fifty percent of the cuts were slated for four campuses: East Carolina University, UNC-Greensboro, North Carolina State University, and UNC-Charlotte. Among the eliminated programs were African Studies, women's and gender studies, various K-12 educational programs, and so on.  The Board of Governors based their decision, as one put it quite bluntly, on neoliberal principles: "We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand."  This followed the recent move by Tom Fennebresque, NC Board of Governors president, who, along with the rest of his colleagues, had previously ousted UNC's highly regarded president, Tom Ross.

Yet as far as I know, the most extreme assault thus far on public universities and the American university system, which is also an attack on academic freedom, appears to be taking place in Wisconsin, where that state's Republican-dominated legislature's Joint Committee on finance voted this week not only for over $250 million in budget cuts but also to remove guarantees of shared-governance involving faculty and students, and to strike faculty tenure, from state law. The legislation clearly states this:
Tenure: Approve the Governor's recommendation to delete the definition of a "tenure appointment" and language establishing the conditions under which the Board of Regents may grant a tenure appointment to a faculty member. Delete current law specifying that a person who has been granted tenure may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. In addition, delete the definition of "probationary appointment" and provisions limiting the length of such an appointment to seven years.
That is the chilling language taken directly from "University of Wisconsin: Omnibus Motion," linked above, which Wisconsin State Senator and Majority Caucus Chair Sheila Harsdorf and Representative Michael Schraa introduced for a vote. Both are Republicans.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the proposed legislation passed the committee on a party-line vote, despite warnings from Democratic legislators that it would harm the university system, widely acknowledged and ranked as one of the nation's best, and it will likely pass both GOP-majority houses of Wisconsin's legislature. After that Republican governor Scott Walker, who had previously gutted public and private sector unions, and survived a recall election, intends to sign the bill into law, whereupon he plans to launch his run for the presidency on the Republican ticket. The tenure-stripping measure was but one of several on which the legislature and Walker, who had initiated a push to restructure the system into a more top-down format, agreed, though there was disagreement on others involving the independence of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tuition increases, and the depth of the cuts.

In response, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the University of Wisconsin's Board of Regents voted unanimously today to temporarily add tenure protections to their board policy should this almost broadly accepted standard will be struck from state law. This appears to be a reaction to the regent's acknowledged inability to convince the legislature to change its mind, though several members of the board have urged the legislature to remove the "non-fiscal," or non-budgetary changes from the law, thus far to no avail. Not only does the stripping of shared governance and tenure endanger academic freedom, but it transforms the future Wisconsin professoriate into an contingent precariate, subject to much easier dismissal, based on political views, statements and actions, under the rubric of elimination and discontinuation of programs, as is occurring in the North Carolina system. Should a new professor like the distinguished historian William Cronon espouse views critical of or contrary to the wishes and beliefs of Wisconsin's leaders (broadly understood), she very well could now be fired. As might any or large numbers of his colleagues.

To put it another way, the professoriate will be subject to the same precarious status as employees at most US businesses, with no guarantee of tenure to ensure stability while pursuing research of any kind, let alone controversial research, whether in the natural sciences (think of the geologists at the University of Oklahoma who have shown a causal link between fracking and earthquakes) or the social sciences (economists studying inequality, say) or the humanities (teaching socially critical works of literature), or engineering (biomedical engineers working with human embryos). But then this destabilization and quasi-privatization is the neoliberal goal, and this silencing of anything that might be viewed as socially or politically controversial is the conservative goal, isn't it?

Though the US Constitution seems to protect prior tenure contracts, the realities of the new law will eventually devastate Wisconsin's faculty, its system, and its educational profile. But then that is the same goal Republicans (and many "school reform" Democrats) have effectively pursued against public elementary and secondary education all over the US, and the effects could be just as far-reaching, since the destruction of the public sphere and commons, with all that they entails, have serious consequences. The people behind such policies act as if because they can neither accept nor transform faculties' independence and liberal tendencies, whether in knowledge, politics or any other sphere, by persuasion, then coercion might work, with dismissal a final step. We have been here before, at various points in history, and the outcome rarely is positive or pleasant. What I hope most people understand is that this is only the beginning, and if voters don't challenge such policies at the polls by publicly denouncing what is happening and voting out legislators advancing agenda like these all over the country, we will rue the day we watched this destruction unfold and sat by, doing nothing, thinking, well, that's just Wisconsin, but in my state....

However, lest we assume there was ever an idyllic or platonic idea of American university life, Chomsky, in the talk to which I linked above, brings us back to earth. As he suggests, great democratization of our universities, with students, staff, faculty, and administration all having a voice in how things are run, is the direction things shifted in the 1960s, to create the examples of shared governance we now think of, at least at many institutions, as the baseline. But let me offer Chomsky's words directly, remind us, as he does, that these ideas come out of Millian classical liberalism, which shows how far contemporary conservatism has moved from its economic and social roots:

First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. 
These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.

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