Scott Walker has formed a Testing the Waters Committee, which I assume has something to do with Marco Rubio’s response to the State of the Union in 2013. (Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.) The new committee will provide him with an additional conduit to raise funds between now and when he announces his presidential bid in July. But at the same time, he’s making some other moves, particularly in the area of tenure for professors at public colleges and universities.
As Republican Gov. Scott Walker prepares to campaign for president as the man who tamed Wisconsin’s unions, he’s taking on a new labor fight: weakening tenure protections for professors at public colleges and universities.
Walker insists that by allowing the University of Wisconsin system Board of Regents, 16 of whose 18 members are appointed by the governor, to set tenure policies instead of having tenure protections spelled out in state law will help give the state university system more flexibility and financial leverage.
His effort could endear him to conservatives who are scornful of what they view as higher education’s ivory tower — a perception Walker has encouraged by suggesting that “maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to think about teaching more classes and doing more work” — but it has infuriated academics and others who consider tenure a vital protection of academic freedom.
Note that Walker isn’t proposing some sort of blanket ban on tenure. That’s probably a smart play, since such an unconditional declaration of war would be yet another bruising battle to engage in just as he’s getting ready to launch a national campaign. Instead of that, he’s proposing that tenure policy be set by the Board of Regents. The effect would probably not, in all likelihood, be the same as some sort of complete ban on tenure, but it could institute some long overdue reviews and corrections.
This will likely reignite the long simmering fight over the tenure system in general. The ivory tower elite will continue to insist that tenure serves the dual purpose of protecting educators from baseless accusations while ensuring that they are not beholden to the shifting tides of political opinion. As I’ve said in the past, the sad part of all this is that those would actually be fairly persuasive arguments in a perfect world. Students may behave maliciously and irresponsibly at times and could bring false accusations against an instructor. And inside of a state run system such as the colleges, it would be nice to think that teachers were all enlightened and pure of motive. Much like judges, it’s not difficult to imagine situations where elected officials put their thumbs on the scale in terms of appointments and hiring.
And yet, tenure turned out to be such a powerful and easily abused weapon that its downside eventually swamped whatever good it hoped to accomplish. The incompetent or even abusive were shielded along with the diligent workers. And rather than providing a nonpartisan safe space for academics, our universities largely turned into liberal or even socialist enclaves where no dissenting opinions would be allowed. The tenure system was simply a tool to cement that structure in place over generations.
Of course, Walker is being accused of doing this as some sort of “stunt” to burnish his conservative credentials as he moves into the primary race. But does anyone think those credentials really needed any polishing when it comes to conservative doctrine regarding unions and universities? Sounds precisely in character to me.