Have Courage-- Act Now

Friday, April 15, 2011

I have spent the last seven years afraid I'd become a cautionary tale. I have been repeatedly warned by older, wiser folks to reconsider my inclinations to do things that could threaten my chances of getting tenure: have a baby on the tenure-track (then have another), initiate a large-scale new data collection project, spend a lot of time grant-writing, write policy briefs and other non-academic papers, travel around the country for policy and practice speaking engagements, write a blog (and then two), and the list goes on and on. Of course, the most controversial decision I made was back in 2009 when I began to speak out loudly and frequently against the policies and actions of UW-Madison's Administration.

For the most part, my advisers are tenured friends who simply want me to succeed. I have a tendency to get in my own way-- by saying "yes" to too many opportunities, wanting to have it all right now, and sometimes by starting to speak before I've finished thinking. I realize that they weren't all saying I should never do the things I've done, but that perhaps I just shouldn't do them right now.

Having now stunned even myself by receiving two unanimous votes of support on my tenure-- from both my department and the UW-Madison Social Science Divisional Committee-- I have this to say. While I have some small regrets about how I've used my time during the last 7 years, I have absolutely no regrets about my decision to speak publicly and confidently about my opposition to the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates and the New Badger Partnership. Both policies threaten the great public university I've come to love as my home, and even more importantly, they threaten the key principles central to my research agenda: higher education access and affordability.

To professors at UW-Madison who share those values and principles and have not yet spoken publicly about your feelings on the NBP: please consider doing so now. To those not at UW-Madison but who recognize this is a national concern-- please also considering doing so. One of the current University of Wisconsin-Madison's greatest assets is its safeguards for academic freedom. As I celebrated last night, I became increasingly cognizant that at most of the nation's colleges and universities my tenure decision wouldn't feel nearly so certain at this point-- it has not yet been signed by my dean, provost, chancellor, or Board of Regents. They are all a critical part of the process, and my stating that I have earned tenure is not meant to disrespect or discount their role. Rather, what I know is that both my department and the divisional committee believe I have earned tenure -- and at the current UW-Madison with its shared governance structure that is what matters most.

Ours is not a top-down institution. Tenure is not decided mainly by the Administration, and this makes it possible for faculty to speak their minds without fear.

That is not how private institutions operate, and should the NBP transform UW-Madison into a public authority (what might also be called a private land-grant university) I expect that will change. While the new Chapter 37 includes the provisions of the current Chapter 36, it could be easily altered with a line-item veto to eliminate the faculty role in the tenure decision-- or simply to give much more decision-making authority to the new Board of Trustees and/or the Chancellor.

Is this an irrational fear? I don't think so. Chancellor Martin has articulated her theory of governance before and it is more a unitary model than a shared one. Moreover, she seems to have brought a strong sense of Cornell University with her. And the way in which power is allocated at Cornell seems remarkably similar to how power has been allocated under the Martin regime at UW-Madison.

As Ambrose Redmoon once wrote, "courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear." If you like the current tenure process at UW-Madison and the freedom it affords faculty to speak truth to power, now is the time to speak. Right now shared governance protects you. Soon, it may not exist.