UW students graduation, UW-Madison photo
UW-Madison Photo

On May 29, the Joint Finance Committee decided to fix the University of Wisconsin in its budget bill. The problem is, the university wasn’t broken.

I’m sure you’ve been hearing people say that the University of Wisconsin is a huge and bloated bureaucracy that wastes taxpayer money. You might have been told that the university confers useless degrees at inflated prices. And you’ve been assured that tenure is an unnecessary perk for lazy, overpaid faculty.

All of these are lies.

Wisconsin spends less on higher education than Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The average state investment per full-time college student was $5,666 last year. Wisconsin spent $4,656.

Private four-year colleges and universities routinely charge over $40,000 each year in tuition. Students from Wisconsin pay $10,399 to attend a university that has been ranked 19th in the world

And if you think college costs are unnecessarily inflated — despite the fact that it’s a nationally competitive market — consider this: The average private high school tuition in the U.S. is $13,289 per year. That’s how much it costs in the private sector to educate your average 10th-grader. (Average full-time day care in Wisconsin, by the way, costs almost $10,000 a year, very close to the cost of UW tuition).

For individuals, the investment in a four-year college education is definitely worth the price. College graduates far outpace high school graduates in the job market, no matter what their major. In 2013, four-year college graduates made 98 percent more an hour than those without a degree. That gap continues to grow.

You might object, of course, that Wisconsin just can’t afford any extra investment right now, given that we were ranked 40th among all states in private-sector job growth in 2014. But there’s ample evidence that strong universities spur growth across the economy. The University of Wisconsin helped to launch more than 283 startup companies in the state. These companies have created 21,000 jobs, and are contributing nearly $2 billion to our economy. 

Our next-door neighbor Minnesota is in the top 10 among states for economic growth. Unlike Wisconsin, Minnesota has reinvested in education at all levels, arguing that it is essential for economic development for the state as a whole.

But none of that, you might object, gets at the problems of tenure. Surely we shouldn’t be paying the fat-cat salaries of faculty who aren’t accountable to anyone.

I’m co-chairing a UW group right now to figure out how many “bad apples” there are among the tenured faculty and to find smart, effective ways to deal with them. From what I can tell so far, they are actually very few and far between, but they get a lot of press. And while we obsess about them, the supposedly lazy UW-Madison faculty drew in over a billion dollars in funding for research last year. Almost every penny of that money comes into Wisconsin from outside the state, which stimulates the local economy. It’s no accident that Dane County has seen much more rapid private-sector economic growth than the rest of the state.

While we work on getting you hard data and a strategy for turning around unproductive employees, please consider how much worse the cure might be than the disease. Tenure empowers teachers and researchers to find out the facts even when those ruffle the feathers of the powerful. Without tenure, scholars would be in constant danger of losing their jobs for saying things legislators didn’t like. Imagine how quickly Florida would fire faculty who dared to use the term “climate change.” We can all envision a left-wing governor equally eager to dismiss researchers who made economic arguments for small and efficient government. And the private sector is not much better when it comes to disinterested truth-telling: Tobacco companies immediately fired researchers who wanted to reveal the dangers of smoking.

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Wiping out the rules protecting academic freedom means that politicians can cancel any program or dismiss any faculty member who speaks out against their values and policies. And that will make a mockery of the pursuit of truth.

So it looks as if the only people who will benefit from abolishing tenure and faculty governance are the legislators who will now have the freedom to cancel any academic programs they don’t like and to fire faculty at will.

Is that what we really want, Wisconsin?

Caroline Levine is an English professor at UW-Madison and co-chair of a UW committee on post-tenure review.

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