Why students should care about the battle over tenure at Wayne State

The administration at Detroit’s Wayne State University, led by President Allan Gilmour, a superstar corporate boss from Ford Motor, Co. with no background in education, is trying to strip away tenure from faculty. When asked if the new contract would abolish tenure, the chief negotiator hired by the administration replied, “It would have that effect, yes.”

President Gilmour denies this.  “Faculty tenure is an important aspect of academic freedom,” he says. They’re just trying to “improve the University’s ability to evaluate faculty performance and address problems more efficiently than the current contract allows.”  Tenure is important “but it cannot be a place to hide for those whose performance or behavior is poor.”  Tenure is important, in other words, it just shouldn’t protect faculty from being fired whenever the university wants.

The president of the university’s faculty union maintains that, however Gilmour wants to word it, they’re trying to abolish tenure. The proposed contract aims to place all “the power to eliminate a tenured faculty member into the hands of the administration and [eliminate] the traditional peer review process,” making Wayne State the first research university in the country to effectively abolish tenure.

I want to address students specifically, and make the case for why they should fiercely oppose this power grab by the University administration.  I’ve already seen several students make comments echoing Gilmour’s case that tenure is a haven for under-performing professors. This, of course, is not a new argument, and has long been a favorite talking point of the most rabid right-wingers.  If management wins, not only would this be a victory for all the frothing-at-the-mouth conservatives trying to destroy the academy; it would be a gigantic leap forward in the corporatization of higher education, an utter disaster for academic freedom, and thus a devastating blow to the quality of education all around.

Since the right-wing counter-revolution of the 1970-80s, public funds have been radically redirected from education and other forms of public spending, to tax cuts for corporations and the super wealthy, imperial expansion, etc. Because of this, schools have had to rely more on alternative sources of revenue to operate, including steep tuition increases (tuition for a full-time student at WSU has risen from $3,970 a year in 2000 to $10,188 a year in 2012) – as well as donations, research contracts and private endowments heavily invested in the stock market and real estate.

This trend has had the effect of encouraging schools to behave more like corporations rather than as an institution of higher learning.  Important services are cut or privatized, departments that don’t attract large research contracts (like liberal arts and the humanities) are regularly placed on the chopping block, real classrooms and human teachers are replaced with computer screens and online courses, while full time faculty are replaced with low wage adjunct instructors.  Tenure has been one of the only things to protect instructors, departments and programs from this neoliberal shock and awe campaign.

Instead of appointing educators, corporate bosses like Allan Gilmour are elevated to the highest ranks of university administrations.  These people are often well versed in making the kind of draconian cuts and layoffs necessary to run a university under the neoliberal model and they are already part of a network of people that can attract lucrative contracts and deals for the university.  People with a background in education would be less likely to play along with the idea that a computer screen is an appropriate replacement for a human instructors and classmates.  Recently, this trend has taken bizarre and startling turns.  Consider, for instance, the uproar at the University of Virginia, where the President was nearly ousted in a virtual coup d’etat because she had doubts about making cuts to liberal arts and language programs.  Her position was only saved through the outcry of students and faculty.

One might ask: “But aren’t universities a sort of business? Universities should be run inexpensively and they do need to raise money. Businessmen know how to do that.” Of course they do. I’m sure that Allan Gilmour knows how to make a lot of money very, very well. The problem is: schools aren’t businesses, they’re centers for learning.  When a school is run like a business it makes profit the mission rather than education and instruction.  We’ve been seeing that at Wayne State for a while now and the fight over tenure is a major part of curbing that process.

By eliminating tenure, Wayne State will be open to a completely radical restructuring.  There will be nothing left to stop the administration from turning the university into a full-fledged corporation.  The university has already undergone a massive transformation over the past decade, including the abolition of several programs, specifically ones designed to serve urban community, such as Interdisciplinary Studies and the College of Life Long Learning.  Since Gilmore became president in 2010, programs like American Studies have been completely abolished and Peace & Conflict Studies barely survived, even though both programs barely cost the university a dime.

Tenure helps protect the integrity of the university, its research and its commitment to education by making a promise, not only to faculty but also to its students, that it will provide certain kinds of instruction.  Wayne State’s administration, by taking the university down the corporate-neoliberal road, is now trying to break those promises and turn education at Wayne State into its most banal form.  If this gets passed the union, Wayne State will become a shibboleth of higher education.  The problem with education is not tenure; the problem is a form of education that places money and profit above everything else.

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One Response to Why students should care about the battle over tenure at Wayne State

  1. Craig says:

    Could have made this much more simple if you want to sell it to students. For instance, the top faculty and researchers will no longer want to get hired here. As the reputation of the school diminishes for having a second rate faculty, your degree becomes less valuable.

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