David Michael Miller
Jesse Stommel was born in Madison, just a mile from the UW campus. Working there had always been his dream job.
And so he surprised even himself last year when he decided to leave a coveted tenure-track position at the UW-Madison for a non-tenure-track job at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
Stommel says the reasons for that decision are complex. But chief among them is what he calls a “lifeboat mentality” that has taken hold in the midst of UW’s tenure troubles.
“The narrative that started to be spun by my senior colleagues was that we have to take tenure extraordinarily seriously, because we have to protect it from all of the people that would swoop in and take it away from us,” Stommel says. “For practical purposes, that meant that anything that didn’t fit into a really traditional frame ended up not being trusted and, essentially, not being allowed.”
Stommel says he was discouraged from dedicating so much time to digital publications and activist scholarship on pedagogy, innovative work he says he was hired to do. “I can understand what motivates it,” he says. “But when a system puts people in a position where they feel like they have to stay quiet in their lifeboat, otherwise they might drown too, that’s the point at which things start breaking down.”
Stommel is one of several UW faculty who have left in the wake of a one-two punch delivered to the university last year by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature. The first was a $250 million cut in state funding, and the second was removal of faculty tenure from state statute. The Board of Regents recently adopted a system-wide tenure policy, but gave administrators greater flexibility to terminate even tenured faculty.
The fallout from these actions is still just starting to be felt. Many warn of a growing exodus of talented professors. Last semester alone, UW-Madison spent nearly $9 million to retain “star faculty” who were contemplating offers elsewhere, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But is everyone leaving for the same reason? And what about those who can’t leave, or who won’t?
One of the university’s high-profile departures was announced two weeks ago by Sara Goldrick-Rab, who will leave her tenured position in Educational Policy Studies this July for a tenured position at Temple University.
“I always thought I’d be 80 years old and retiring before I had to say goodbye,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, who calls the decision “heart-breaking, gut-wrenching.”
Goldrick-Rab founded the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and served for years on the Committee on Undergraduate Recruitment, both efforts to help low-income, minority and nontraditional students access higher education. She was originally drawn to the UW because of its reputation for scholarship in the public interest, a central tenet of the Wisconsin Idea. But she says even with tenure, politicized scholarship like hers has become increasingly risky.
Despite having taught and brought in more than $10 million in research funding, she worried she could be laid off “in the name of efficiency” under the regents’ new tenure policy.
“If the University of Wisconsin cannot be a supportive environment for that work, I have to find a new one,” she says.
She recognizes that not everyone has the luxury to leave.
“We’re not going to see an exodus,” she says. “What we are going to see is a fundamental change in what made this place great. We’re going to see a change in the intellectual culture.”
Lost in much of the recent high-stakes, high-volume debate over the demise of “real tenure” and the defection of “star faculty” at the UW, is the fact that the vast majority of those who teach there already do so without the job security and intellectual freedom that tenure is designed to provide.
According to data compiled by the UW System, UW-Madison employs 2,124 tenure-track faculty, compared to 2,270 non-tenure-track instructional staff and 5,339 graduate assistants. Nationally, only about three out of 10 faculty are tenure-track. UW-Madison relies less than average on adjunct and part-time faculty but more than average on grad student teaching.
“Academia is like acting or sports,” explains Dan Thurs, a non-tenure-track faculty associate in the Department of Physics. “You’ve got a lot of people after a few tenured positions, and you really only see the ones who make it. But most are going to be doing commercials or playing in the bush leagues for the rest of their lives.”
Many non-tenure-track faculty were unaware of the tenure turmoil.
“I haven’t heard a peep,” says Allison, a lecturer who teaches four courses per semester and asked that her name not be used out of fear of reprisal.
Allison has worked at several universities and knows what it’s like to be a “fly-by-night” adjunct, the temp workers of academia who are hired on a semester-by-semester basis for $2,000 to $6,000 per course with no benefits.
At one university, she says she was dismissed because a colleague thought the innovations she was making to a course “made him look bad.” “So all of a sudden, I have no work; I have a condition that requires a lot of medical attention, so I have to have health insurance,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d ever come back to academia.”
She has since been hired at the UW on a “rolling contract,” which consists of three one-year contracts to start, with the possibility of renewal. Although she sees her job as “pretty stable” now, she’s considering starting a consulting business on the side, just in case.
Rebecca, a lecturer in the hard sciences at UW-Madison who also asked that her name not be used, says not having tenure isn’t her main concern. “I’m pretty mobile, and if I did lose my job, I would be willing to uproot and move elsewhere,” she says.
But she’s troubled by the pay disparity and lack of input into her department, since she estimates that those without tenure who teach have “comparably intense” workloads to those with tenure who do research.
“Do I deserve to be a second-class citizen where that person who does more specialized work gets to have amazing voting privileges while I can’t vote about anything that happens in the curriculum?” she says. “I think that’s bullshit.”
Allison says there’s no reason the kind of tenure protections afforded to those who do challenging research couldn’t also be extended to those who do innovative teaching, a measure the American Association of University Professors has recommended as well.
But she believes tenured faculty would have to do more to advocate for those without it. “I hope that if UW-Madison stops being under fire, we could start making decisions like that.”
At the heart of the UW tenure debate is a clash of visions for public higher education, says Goldrick-Rab.
“The current leadership of both the state and the UW System seems to think that what we’re supposed to do is simply...engage in job training that prepares students for a narrow set of things.”
“There’s nothing wrong with job training,” she adds. “But it doesn’t prepare you for life. It doesn’t allow you to develop those critical thinking skills that allow you to be a contributing member of our democracy, your community, and, most importantly, to have job after job after job and develop careers that provide economic security.”
On that, Dan Thurs would likely agree.
“I’d rather have a discussion about the role of the university in today’s society than a debate about tenure.”
“Maybe it’s a proxy for that discussion,” muses Thurs. “‘What should the university be doing? What is its role, really?’”