by Karma R. Chavez
On March 10, the UW Board of Regents passed what I can only describe as extreme changes to System tenure policies. These policies, much to the contrary of the public statements of the Board and some campus administrators, will have potentially devastating impacts on the UW. After tenure protections and shared governance guarantees were stripped from state law under last year’s Act 55, the Board assured faculty around the state that they would adopt policies as strong as those formerly enshrined in state law. But after the March 10 vote, it is clear that nothing could be further from the truth. In my view, those faculty already most marginalized, especially people of color, queer people and those who do research deemed “too political” are by far the most vulnerable.
Under the old policy, tenured faculty could only be fired due to extreme misconduct or a financial emergency. Under new System provisions, programs can be modified or discontinued essentially without faculty governance and without educational considerations being primary. Instead, financial considerations will be given equal (and likely more) consideration in order to give chancellors the “flexibility” they need to meet what the Board described as 21st century economic realities. “Flexibility” is a word that Board vice president John Behling must have used at least a dozen times to describe his opposition to faculty-supported amendments to the new policy, and in support of making financial considerations the most important. What many faculty like myself understand “flexibility” to mean is the flexibility to fire faculty at will, when the programs where they reside are no longer financially viable based on some obtuse metric, no matter the educational importance of their work. This could mean pitting smaller and less lucrative programs against bigger and financially stable programs, and in effect, it could easily be used to squeeze out faculty with unpopular political opinions or research programs, particularly those in the humanities and gender and ethnic studies.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has said that if these new policies are used to such ends, they will censure the UW, an action that makes UW unattractive to funders and faculty talent alike. While each UW campus will now put together its own policies, each will be approved by the Board of Regents. UW-Madison already wrote its policies (I was on the committee that drafted them last summer and fall), but System President Ray Cross has said there are critical changes that need to be made to the policy before it will be able to be approved. One can only conjecture as to what he means, but given the Board’s insistence that Chancellors need flexibility to make financial decisions, these changes will not be in the interest of the faculty.
And this is where communities of color should really be paying attention. At the March 10 Board meeting, just like several other meetings, a System-wide coalition of students of color and their white accomplices disrupted the meeting in order to once again issue their demands to improve their home campuses regarding issues of race and equity. From where I sat during the last two meetings, it seems their demands continue to fall on disinterested ears. But the students are right to address their demands alongside concerns for tenure. They know better than most that when the faculty who support them are targeted, they will be the ones to suffer.
What’s happening at UW should remind some of something from ten years ago, when the liberal-turned-conservative activist David Horowitz wrote a book called The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. In it, he named whom he saw as the scholars most engaged in “political corruption” in university classrooms. While many commentators described Horowitz’s “academic freedom” campaign as a McCarthyite witch hunt due to the number of Marxists and old radicals on the list, few paid attention to the fact that a sizable portion—much disproportionate to their number in the academy—were people of color, women and/or queer people who taught about issues like prisons, Palestine, queer theory, feminism, and critical race studies. Nothing much really came of Horowitz’s witch hunt, but the vast majority of those professors (several, I might add, who I consider friends, mentors or allies) had tenure protections to keep any challenges to their academic freedom at bay. What happens to such faculty in an academy without real tenure? Fewer faculty teaching unpopular and difficult material from their marginalized positions and perhaps even fewer willing to stand up for their colleagues will impact the most marginalized students in the worst possible ways.
The Board of Regents’ decision two weeks ago leaves all of us who care about public education in an incredibly bad position. I must admit that as a tenured queer Chicana feminist scholar who teaches on topics of political significance from that point of view, and as one who is actively politically involved in her community, my willingness to exercise my right to free speech and academic freedom in unpopular ways makes me feel especially vulnerable. The “flexibility” now afforded to chancellors “to make difficult decisions” on the basis of educational AND financial considerations no longer counts as tenure despite the spin of the board and administrators. And if faculty like me are squeezed out, where does that leave the most vulnerable students?