Expanding on a Twitter Talk with @saragoldrickrab

Social media platforms like Twitter are useful for all sorts of things, including making connections with scholars/writers “out there” in academia and beyond. But these platforms aren’t very useful to host/sponsor a more thoughtful discussion about some complicated topic. Twitter is particularly bad at this.

This is why I thought it’d be useful (at least for myself) to create a blog post responding to the 25 or so Tweets I received from @saragoldrickrab last night (and another eight or so this afternoon).

And just to be clear: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Goldrick-Rab. She’s a rock-star academic who writes lots of smart stuff about education policy (I blogged here about a piece she wrote with Audrey Watters about Kevin Carey’s book), and I also blogged previously about a “Twitter storm” she was in back in July. So I’m not writing this as some effort to “mansplain” anything to her or anyone else; I’m trying to parse this out a bit more for myself and anyone else who might be interested.



I can’t remember exactly how it started, but I think I was responding to this retweet:

I posted about the Schuman Slate article this UW student paper article is about on Facebook last week, and as I said there, I’m honestly confused about the tenure fuss in the UW system. It seems to me– or seemed, I guess– that the main difference between the previous tenure system in Wisconsin and the current system is tenure is no longer codified in the Wisconsin state constitution. Anyway, I tweeted/replied:


Goldrick-Rab shared a couple of links to further reading; the first was:

As far as I can tell, Goldrick-Rab thinks that the difference between UW and Temple’s system in terms of firing tenured faculty is that at Temple, the policy is in the faculty’s hands and Temple is unionized.  Well, maybe I’m too cynical or maybe things are different at Temple, but in my experience in higher ed, the Faculty Senate rarely has that kind of power. In other words, if the shit were to really hit the fan at Temple and they had to lay off faculty because of a financial crisis or because the department/program that a professor works in was phased out, I have a feeling that the Faculty Senate would be forced to go along with the administration’s decisions. So in that sense, I don’t think this situation is a whole lot different in the UW system than at Temple– and vice versa.

And let’s also be clear: this scenario for laying off tenure-track faculty at a major university is, IMO, “major doomsday,” along the lines of what would the U.S. do if ISIS set off a nuke in Manhattan: it’s not impossible, but it’s not likely either.

No, based on my experience at EMU, I think what really matters here is that Temple faculty are apparently unionized. 

So I tweeted back:

She responded:

And I quoted from her blog post:

And my response (and her response):

She tweeted/asked:

And I tweeted/she responded:

She’s right– the situation on the ground here is not either tenure or a faculty union.  But what I’m getting at is I think the faculty union (particularly a strong union like the one representing faculty here) is more valuable than tenure, and if I were forced (hypothetically) to make a choice, I’d choose the union every time. 

Don’t get me wrong– the union is not all rainbows and unicorns. As I’ve written about and spoken about many times before, the EMU-AAUP routinely drives me a little crazy with the ways it does things. However, like Democracy (I believe it was Winston Churchill who said something like this), it’s the worst system available to us– except for all of the others.

And as I also think is true, one of the disturbing things that happened in Wisconsin when this was all going down– more disturbing than the weakening of the language of tenure– is the laws changed to make it either really difficult or completely impossible for public employees (like public university faculty) to unionize and collectively bargain.

Anyway, Goldrick-Rab posted a few more links about the impact of tenure changes in Wisconsin:

So on and so forth. Fair enough, and I for one agree whole-heartedly that the changes in tenure in the Wisconsin system definitely make it weaker than it was before. Does it make “#faketenure”? Does it make it weaker than most other universities? I don’t know, and I think to claim with certainty anything other than that is problematic for at least two reasons. First, this hasn’t been tested yet. I tweeted and she replied:

And sure, I see her point– this “new order” tenure rules haven’t even been in place a year. But isn’t it also true that it’s too early to say that this is going to be a huge problem as well? There have been a number of stories about how there are efforts underway to shore up tenure in the system, including a piece of legislation in the Wisconsin legislature (I have no idea what its chances are of passing).

Second, I don’t think Goldrick-Rab (or anyone else I’ve read who has been sounding the alarms about the end of tenure in Wisconsin) has ever actually compared the language at other universities/other systems that define tenure. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I bring it up in part because of this exchange I had last night that continued into this afternoon. Last night I tweeted and Goldrick-Rab responded:

That’s a post I wrote a while back that, yes, is based on my experiences, and yes, highly anecdotal. It was a blog post, not a research study. So what? And then this afternoon there was this:


And as I think about this a bit more, I asked myself: where’s Goldrick-Rab’s data? What is she writing about here that is beyond anecdote?

I think it is completely legitimate for her to make claims about all of the things about tenure and everything else at Wisconsin based on her professional experiences, much in the same way I feel it’s legitimate to make my claims on my professional experiences. But where is the study– I mean the really robust study– that does a textual analysis comparison of different statements from different university boards of regents, trustees and the like to compare the subtle differences in the language about tenure and being able to be fired for some dubious reasons? Besides looking at the actual language describing tenure and what it takes to fire someone with tenure, this potential study could also probably track dismissals of tenured faculty based on the policy. In other words, even at places where the protections of tenure are weak, what has been the track record for tenured faculty being fired?

Mind you, I’m not planning on doing that study anytime soon. But unless I’m missing something, Goldrick-Rab hasn’t done that study either, meaning her “evidence” is just as fishy as mine.

Two last things and then I’ll stop:

First, I think the focus– even obsession– by faculty at UW on this change of the language on tenure was exactly what Scott Walker and is ilk wanted. The changes in tenure were a smoke screen to distract faculty from the real damage caused to the UW system, the massive budget cuts. For the most part, it worked. That’s the real outrage.

Second, let’s just take a moment to have a reality check on our tenure and academic freedom privileges, shall we?

The AAUP has said that about 75% of all university faculty in the U.S. do not have tenure and they are in positions where tenure will never be a possibility. I blogged about that a couple years ago because I think that’s an estimate that could use a little parsing out. But let’s say that it is basically true that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all types of faculty across the board will never be eligible for even the weakened tenure in Wisconsin. What does this mean to this discussion?

If tenure really is not about “job security” and “entitlement” but about “academic freedom,” then how can Goldrick-Rab, me, or anyone else defend this system with a straight face? Are the 66-75% of people who are working part-time, on annual contracts, or otherwise not protected by tenure not entitled to “academic freedom?” Is it just the few of us who have managed to get to the top of the mountain who should be allowed to say what they want?

I think the values of tenure are important too, and despite what Goldrick-Rab is implying in this tweet to me last night: 

I have indeed “been there,” most notably with EMUTalk.org for nine years, a site which I believe was the boots on the ground enactment of “academic free speech” and which was largely possible because I’ve been tenured for a while now.

But I also have been around enough to know that the many non-tenure-track faculty in the trenches at a place like EMU– particularly the part-timers working semester to semester here– think that an argument about tenure being not about “job security” and “entitlement” but only about “academic freedom” is laughable. “Academic freedom” doesn’t pay a part-time adjunct’s bills when they aren’t teaching in the summer.

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