Will other states follow Scott Walker's lead on weakening teacher tenure?

Scott Walker rose to superstar status with many GOP conservatives after a clash with K-12 teachers over bargaining rights. On the eve of today's presidential bid, he cut state university budgets and tenure rights.

John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker displays a signed 2015-17 state budget during a ceremony on the production floor of Valveworks USA in Waukesha, Wis., on Sunday.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – who announced a 2016 presidential bid Monday – faces intense criticism from higher education activists, after signing a $73 billion state budget that makes hefty cuts to the University of Wisconsin system and significantly reduces tenure protections for faculty.

The budget includes $250 million in cuts to the university system over the next two years, down from the $300 million in cuts that the GOP governor initially proposed. 

In the past, such cuts had to be absorbed without firing tenured faculty, whose jobs could be eliminated for fiscal reasons only in the case of a financial emergency. But the new state budget gives the board of regents the right to fire tenured faculty “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

Governor Walker established a national political profile after a clash over public employee bargaining rights, including K-12 teachers, that sparked huge protests in the state capital in 2011. Walker survived a much-publicized recall vote in 2012 and a nationally financed campaign to defeat his reelection bid in 2014.

He has used the political capital gained from the election victories to drive his conservative agenda across the state. Now, he's hoping that record will help carry him to the White House. 

Enshrining tenure protections in state law is a rarity in US higher education, but faculty and administrators say that it has been a major selling point at UW universities to attract and retain quality staff.

Proponents of cutting tenure protections say it gives more flexibility in meeting academic and fiscal demands. Critics charge that Walker's policies amount to a factory model for turning out skilled workers rather than the pursuit of knowledge.

Opponents say the cuts – in conjunction with an approved tuition freeze – handcuffs the university’s attempts to raise revenue and will lead to irreparable damage to the university system and its staff. At the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus alone, 400 positions will be eliminated, reported The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says that the elimination of tenure protections means that she and many of her colleagues will be leaving the university for other institutions.

“I estimate that 50 percent of my colleagues, including the vast majority of everyone with grants and those under 50, are planning to leave in the next 2-3 years,” she said in an e-mail.

Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the system’s flagship campus, sent a letter to the governor last week that urged him to veto the budget and roll back the changes.

But Walker ignored the plea and signed the new budget on Sunday, downplaying the ramifications of the tenure change and boosting a tuition freeze that is scheduled for the next two years.

“We made college more affordable for college students and working families all across the state,” Walker told Politico.

But critics say that the new cuts will make it harder for students to graduate on time, leading to more tuition paid and even higher tuition for nonresidents. 

MoreoverWalker’s move to remove tenure protection could also have ramifications for other state university systems.

Professor Goldrick-Rab says that she fully expects North Carolina, which has recently closed many academic programs across the state, to move toward Wisconsin's example. Such program cuts "could only save so much money because tenure protected the tenured faculty from layoff due to program closure,” she adds. “If that happened in Wisconsin tomorrow, the savings would be much larger – the faculty would also be let go.”

Earlier this year, reports emerged that Walker’s administration tried to amend the state university's historic mission, known as the Wisconsin Idea, by scrapping principles about promoting public service, improving the human condition, and searching for truth, and replacing them with a provision "to meet the state's workforce needs," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Walker, who left Marquette University without a degree, called the proposed amendment “a drafting error.”

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