“A job for life” are the words Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is using to describe tenure.
It may be a terrible tact to take for his state’s university system, but it’s a smart move politically.
Here’s why: The UW System is an important and arguably beloved institution in Wisconsin. Attacking the system, even as part of strategy for reducing costs, is a risky proposition. But if you can paint university professors as a group of people whose lives are removed from the reality of ordinary Wisconsinites — as a “them,” and not part of “us” — withdrawing funding and altering the policies that have made the UW system schools appealing places to work is easier.
Since May 2007, I’ve spent a good bit of time participating in conversations in communities throughout Wisconsin. This has typically involved meeting people in diners, gas stations and restaurants. The point of this has been to listen to residents’ concerns and get a better understanding of how people are making sense of our politics these days.
Even though I have lived in Wisconsin for most of my life, what I learned surprised me.
I learned there is a significant rural vs. urban divide, in which many people who live outside the Madison and Milwaukee metro areas see themselves as consistently getting the short end of the stick. They perceive that big decisions that affect their lives are made in Madison and Milwaukee, with little input from people in communities like theirs. And they think city folks just don’t understand or respect the small town way of life.
This is fertile ground for politicians who want to reduce funding and other kinds of support for universities. They can milk resentment among people struggling to make ends meet by pointing to the health insurance, pension benefits and salaries enjoyed by faculty. The notion that some faculty members have “jobs for life” is especially outrageous to people who experience high levels of job insecurity.
To many of the faculty members I know here in Wisconsin and elsewhere, academic tenure is an essential part of quality education. It promotes academic freedom, and helps build an educated citizenry, which contributes to the broader public good. Without tenure, our world-class university will no longer be able to attract top talent, and will experience a “brain drain” as top professors depart for other states.
But to many of the folks I’ve spent time with in coffee klatches around Wisconsin, all of that sounds kind of like yoga, meditation and organic diets — luxuries accessible mainly to the urban elite.
It’s unfortunate that politicians are eager to exploit these resentments to achieve their aims. Those of us in academia need to do a better job of recognizing these resentments and understanding where they come from. We need to make it clear we care about all the people of the state.
As UW President Charles Van Hise declared in a speech explaining the Wisconsin Idea, “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every home in the state.”
Cramer is director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and Professor of Political Science at UW–Madison and the author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016, University of Chicago Press). This opinion was distributed by the Progressive Media Project.