The Business Case for Tenure

This month, faculty across the University of Wisconsin System are conducting “no confidence” votes in the University of Wisconsin System president, Ray Cross. At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, outgoing student body president Jake Wrasse has criticized this movement as misguided. In an open letter, he wrote that state legislators have an “entrepreneurial/capitalistic” set of beliefs, and feel faculty members are “out of touch”.

The “no confidence” votes are symbolic: they’re meant to draw attention to an ongoing problem. That problem isn’t far off in the clouds, though. It’s something any business owner can understand.

Let’s say your business model depends on hiring people with advanced degrees in highly technical subjects: computer science, economics, data science, and so forth. There aren’t many people with these qualifications in your area, so you recruit nationally and even internationally, competing for talent with businesses all over the world.

Now, let’s suppose someone tells you about a secret recruiting strategy. This strategy will enable you to pay new hires far less money than other businesses are paying — two-thirds or even half the going salaries. What’s more, the employees you recruit this way will be fanatically loyal. They won’t leave, even when they could double their paychecks by going elsewhere.

You’d use this strategy, right? You’d be a fool not to.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Wisconsin’s leaders are foolish.

You see, Wisconsin used to use the special recruiting strategy I described: it’s called tenure. Tenure-track professors go through a lengthy probationary period, typically about six years, before earning job security protections, such as the right not to be dismissed without just cause. By offering the chance of tenure to new university professors, the University of Wisconsin System recruited PhDs from all over the world. These PhDs were drawn by the promise of freedom to think about big, difficult problems, the sorts of questions that may take many years to resolve. Most universities offer some form of tenure, but the Wisconsin System was special: our state valued education so much, it had enshrined goals such as “educate people,” “improve the human condition,” and “search for truth” in state law.

In exchange for time and space to search for truth, Wisconsin faculty accepted less-than-competitive salaries. University of Wisconsin System salaries are low even compared to salaries at other universities. According to statistics collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, UW-Eau Claire assistant professors (the lowest rank for tenure-track faculty) make on average 93% of the salaries of their peers at other four-year public institutions, while assistant professors at nearby UW-Stout make 85% of their peers’ salaries. By the rank of full professor, the gap broadens: UW-Eau Claire full professors are at 69% of the salary average, UW-Stout professors at 66%. Things look even worse if we compare to the salaries offered by non-academic employers of PhDs, such as Google, Amazon, or the National Security Agency. However, the loyalty Wisconsin professors felt to the institutions that offered them tenure kept them from seeking higher wages elsewhere.

Recently, however, Wisconsin legislators and the Board of Regents have chosen to weaken tenure protections. Tenure is “out of step with reality for most workers in other sectors,” wrote John Behling, the chair of the Board of Regents’ Tenure Policy Task Force, who was appointed by Republican Governor Scott Walker. What John Behling and the other regents do not realize is that paying your employees tens of thousands of dollars less than the competition is also out of step with reality. In comparison, tenure was a bargain.

University of Wisconsin faculty are idealistic. But they’re also pretty good at arithmetic. They’ve got families to support. And they’re leaving. For example, a year ago, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire had eight computer science professors; this year, it has five.

As professors leave UW-Eau Claire, class sizes are spiking. Some courses required for graduation have already been canceled. Students who want to major in computer science — or other majors in high demand, such as applied mathematics or materials science — may need to head out of state, to institutions that can keep professors around.

President Ray Cross and University of Wisconsin System chancellors have tried to share the effects of statewide university budget cuts with the legislature. But even if the legislature increases the universities’ budgets, they won’t be able to retrieve the skilled faculty who are gone. These losses are anything but symbolic.

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