Almost two years ago I wrote about the changes to the UW system’s tenure policy, I was cautious in my thinking, concluding:
I do not think you will see an immediate exodus if these changes are implemented…I imagine most faculty do not think their program will be at risk…However, the first time a UW system school lays off tenured faculty for “financial or strategic planning reasons” the calculus changes. If it can happen to [said program] it can happen to my program. This is when the system will start losing large numbers of quality people.
The recent news out of UW-Stevens Point shows we are getting closer to a critical point. If programs such as political science and history are cut, and if tenured faculty are let go (still two really big ifs, but more real this week than last week), I fear UW system schools will be at a permanent disadvantage in the faculty labor market. We will struggle to recruit at all, much less the best people, and talented faculty will inevitably flee for more stable positions. Reduced faculty quality means a degraded student experience in UW system schools. I do not think that helps our state.
Then there is the larger question of how a regional comprehensive university can even exist without English, History, Political Science, etc. What exactly will UW-Stevens Point be? A university is not an a la carte collection of courses, but an organization whose offerings are designed to reinforce and complement one another. Teaching in an inter-disciplinary subject I am particular sensitive to this reality. It is very simplistic to think certain programs can be eliminated without having an impact on other programs, and ultimately student learning and future job prospects.
I am not naive. The UW system (as well as my institution) has issues, some of these issues are a result of demographic changes and political decisions, and some are self-inflicted. I do not fear reform. Personally I think UW system schools should pursue increased partnerships and programming across campuses to leverage the unique capabilities and talents that exist across the system. I think faculty incentive structures are outdated and too often divorced from the practical impacts of research and outreach. Yes, the pathologies of bureaucracy exist across the system and should be rooted out.
But positive change requires a thoughtful approach that engages faculty and leadership across the system. Positive change must be rooted in objective realities rather than anecdotes and faulty understandings of how universities work and what faculty do on a daily basis. Positive change must be guided by a common agreed upon understanding of the UW system’s goals. By all means let’s rethink higher education in this state, but let’s not just make it up as we go along.