The Tenure Conundrum

06/07/2015 07:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2016

Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, thinks he's hit political pay dirt with his proposal to gut faculty tenure protections at his state's public universities, notably the flagship University of Wisconsin, long one of the nation's best state universities. His idea is to remove tenure protection from state law, and leave the actual policy to the Board of Regents, his political appointees.

For Walker, this is a three-fer. It's another attack on a public institution, in the wake of his successful campaign to weaken collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public employees. It is a thinly disguised assault on a university perceived as a hotbed of liberals and liberalism. And it continues Walker's faux-populist theme by seemingly going after a bastion of privilege -- the elite, pointy-headed professoriate.

All this plays well with the Tea Party base. Walker needs to differentiate himself from the other presumed top-tier GOP contenders. Unlike Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, often mentioned with Walker and Jeb Bush as the leading candidates, Walker as a governor can point to his state as a laboratory of conservatism.

The institution of academic tenure was started by progressive reformers in the late 19th century to protect academic freedom. The idea was to assure that faculty members could not be fired because of their views.

With fierce competition for the very best scholars, if a world-class campus such as the University of Wisconsin were to scrap tenure, rival universities would easily poach its best faculty members. Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education observed that another conservative governor, Greg Abbott of Texas, has just committed $500 million to lure Nobel Prize winners to the University of Texas. "You can't do something like that if you don't give them tenure," he added.

Yet if the tenure system is a sitting duck for rightwing attacks, in part universities have themselves to blame. In recent years, as costs have risen, more and more universities have resorted to very low paid, never to be tenured, adjuncts. The going pay rate is a few thousand dollars a course; some adjuncts literally earn less than minimum wage when the time spent on class preparation and grading papers and exams is added to time actually teaching.

Like too much of the rest of the economy, the tenured elite seems to keep its privileges at the expense of a new proletariat with Ph.D's (so much for the education cure for low wages). Nationally, only about one college teacher in four is tenured or a tenure-track.

You can see where this is headed. Much of Europe has long had a system where a few super-elite academics have tenured chairs, but for every Herr Doktor Professor, there are several underlings. Even John Maynard Keynes, the greatest economist of his generation, never rose above the status of lecturer, in part because he was too controversial to get a chair.

America, long with a less elitist system of higher education, is going the way of old Europe.

But it's more complicated still. Much of the cost squeeze at great public universities (and the ensuing pressure on tuition hikes and student loans) is the result of state legislatures withdrawing funding. In addition to gutting tenure protections, Walker has proposed further drastic cuts in funding for the University of Wisconsin.

Nationally, public universities are now only about 15 percent supported by public funds. So it adds injury to insult when a rightwing governor cuts tax support -- leaving a public university effectively private when it comes to meeting its budget -- but that same governor attempts to dictate academic policy.

Even in rightwing Texas, they evidently know that world class universities are needed for economic development. Walker, however, doesn't appear to care about the effect on the actual university or on the future health of his state's economy. He thinks he has a political winner in his quest for the Republican nomination. That trumps his state pride in a superb university.

All of this, of course, is part of the broad rightwing attack on public institutions of all kinds. Even in relatively liberal Wisconsin, Walker was able to succeed with his attack on public employee collective bargaining because many voters, instead of looking at the decent pay and pension packages and saying, "I want what they have," agreed with Walker that civil servants had it too good.

That's one of the costs of lowered expectations in this country. Republicans are doing their best to make the public sector the scapegoat, to undermine Democrats' advocacy of public solutions. And they may succeed.

Are elite college professors really overpaid? A few are, perhaps, but you have to ask: compared to whom?

The other day, the hedge fund executive John Paulson gave half a billion dollars to Harvard. Paulson, who reckons his annual earnings in the billions, makes more in half an hour than a tenured college professor makes in a year -- and Paulson, whose prime business is speculation, contributes less to the real economy.

We've reached a point in this country where astronomical paydays are deemed acceptable as long as they occur in the private sector -- and merely decent earnings in the public sector are suspect.

For all universities, the average earning for tenured full professors is about $95,000. Associate and assistant professors make far less. At elite "research universities" like the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where teachers are expected to do research as well as teach, the figure is about $116,000 -- more in the sciences, less in the liberal arts.

If academia is starting to become a two-class system, leaving tenured professors vulnerable to the charge of elitism, a prime cause is the withdrawal of public support from nominally public institutions. At the same time, defenders of tenure, at elite private universities in blue states, beyond the reach of demagogues like Scott Walker, need to clean their own houses. The wealthiest private universities could start by paying non-tenured faculty decently.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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