The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents is just weeks away from adopting a new policy on tenure, and it’s no surprise that most of the professors who have it or are on track to get it want to preserve the status quo.
Their opinions matter. That’s why the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute sponsored an independent survey by University of Chicago Professor William Howell late last year gauging their perspective – and why we were so chagrined when an effort was made by some faculty members to undermine Howell’s valuable and objective research.
It’s also why, I presume, the Board of Regents appointed a Tenure Policy Task Force comprised largely of professors and associate/assistant professors throughout the UW System.
The professors, however, are far from the only group with a vested interest in the 26 UW System schools and Extension, and how they are run. And they are far from the only group that should have the ear of regents as they decide whether to stand pat or give our universities, our children and our businesses a fair chance to compete in an ever-changing world.
Human knowledge is growing at an unprecedented rate – almost as fast, it sometimes seems, as student debt levels. Wisconsin will not flourish unless it is able to keep pace, help its citizens create and feed new industries and technologies while also offering them the knowledge and perspective to lead meaningful, fulfilling and prosperous lives. Students, parents, alumni, the Wisconsin business community, legislators, instructors without tenure, and taxpayers all have a deep-rooted interest in and concern about the future of our public universities. Support will invariably depend on whether the regents make sure professors are held accountable.
Howell’s research has already been released and is available at www.wpri.org. Today, we release “The Trouble with Tenure,” a WPRI report that contains two new and separate pieces of research that we hope the Board of Regents and leaders of individual campuses and the Extension will find useful: “How the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents can make professors accountable to taxpayers and students, ”and“ What do UW instructors without tenure – the ones doing much of the teaching – think?”
You won’t find a defense of the status quo in these pages. Wisconsin can’t afford that. Nor will you find a full-throated argument that tenure should be abolished outright. You will find carefully considered recommendations informed by people like Charles Sorensen, the former UW-Stout chancellor who knows the UW System inside and out. You will also find the fascinating and informative results of a survey of the folks who teach in the UW System but don’t have tenure. Conducted by Ike Brannon, a former tenured UW-Oshkosh professor who now runs Capital Policy Analytics, the results include a key finding: A majority of those surveyed do believe that tenure is a good indication of the quality of research. Only about 30%, however, feel it is a good indication of the quality of instruction or impact on the community, business or economy.
The truth is that tenure can be valuable when used for the right reasons, in the right places. Regents, though, can do more than their task force is recommending to make sure leaders of individual campuses have the flexibility they need to be responsive to students and the job market. In the meantime, individual campuses and the Extension – which vary greatly in their focus on research or on instruction or on community interaction – should be asked to articulate exactly how and when tenure is helpful and when it isn’t.