The latest development out of Wisconsin, where state government and the regents of the University of Wisconsin system have been modifying tenure protections, is a series of faculty votes of no confidence in the regents.  The current point of contention might be something exceedingly wonky: must financial exigency (a reason of long standing for discharging a tenured professor) apply across the board, or might a limited form of it allow for a department, or an area of concentration within a department, to be abolished while tenured faculty with less seniority or less stellar records or whatever the criteria for retrenchment usually are get to stay on?

There's nothing new about these troubles, they've been a long time in coming.

The debates, however, are taking on a different tone.
Ray Cross, president of the University of Wisconsin System, wrote in a March email to the vice president of the system’s Board of Regents, who was chairing a task force on controversial changes to layoff policies concerning tenured faculty members, that tenure should not mean “a job for life,” according to public records first obtained by the The Cap Times. "That is a ‘union’ argument,” Cross wrote to Regent John Behling, comparing faculty members to railroad brakemen whom he said were kept on the job for years after they were no longer needed.
More properly, that's the Wisconsin Full Crew Law, and it began with the railroads seeking to abolish the position of fireman on a diesel locomotive.  The brakemen, and the cabooses, disappeared later as railroading went from a retail (set out a car of coal here, pick up a car of cattle there) to a wholesale mode of transportation, in which the elevator loads a hundred cars of grain destined for one port, or the mine loads a hundred cars of coal destined for one power plant.

It's less clear that higher education is undergoing a similar transition.  Yes, there are all sorts of possibilities for internet delivery of information to pass themselves off as productivity improvements, and yet there's no learning without the student somehow writing something for the professor (or, these days, the cheap or contingent stand-in) to evaluate.  The battle line appears to be, as it long has been, over whether tenure protections keep professors on the payroll despite not interacting with the students.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who pushed for some of the changes in question, along with major budget cuts, seemed to support Cross in a statement Tuesday saying, “The bottom line is [system] funding stands at an all-time high, spending per student at [Madison] is up more than 40 percent since 2002-03, and faculty is spending less time in the classroom. ...Some faculty bodies [...] appear more interested in protecting outdated ‘job for life’ tenure than about helping students get the best education possible."
Here, there's a market test, but that doesn't work out well for tenured faculty.  Specifically, in the absence of tenure, faculty are more likely to behave like athletes or hedge fund managers, where the half-life of a career is short, and hold out for greater compensation up front.  But the all-administrative university has been moving to a cheap and contingent workforce, and the reserve army of underemployed Ph.D.s makes that strategy look like a wise one, at least for the short term.

Thus, this Right Wisconsin defense of Mr Cross is incomplete.
In short, what Cross is trying to relay to the faculty is this:

If you are an accomplished, accredited professor in, say, South American studies with an in-demand series of courses and you decide to go on sabbatical in Peru for an archeological dig, your job will still be there upon your return. If you are a professor who teaches a course with little or no demand by the student body, then why should the school keep you employed if no wants to be taught by you?
Sabbatical protections are distinct from tenure protections.  The sabbatical is an opportunity for a professor to engage in more intensive study of a phenomenon -- the archaeological dig in Peru is pitch-perfect, actually -- than is possible if that professor is obligated to meet classes and sit on committees.  But a board of regents that is looking for ways to keep faculty in classrooms (or monitoring online classes at all hours) is also a board of regents reluctant to fund sabbaticals.  In my experience, professors eligible for sabbatical are also careful in scheduling them so as to not make the scheduling of classes that are central to their department's mission more difficult.

Stingy legislators and compliant regents, however, can contribute to those difficulties by not funding sabbaticals, by not authorizing visiting professors to cover for the research stars away in Peru, by not replacing tenured faculty who retire, by otherwise being cheap.

To return to the railroad metaphor, the false economies pursued by railroad managements might have affected the railroads much more adversely than did those firemen on the diesels and the brakeman on the buggy.

SECOND SECTION.  Here's Wisconsin historian William P. Jones, recently recruited away to Minnesota, with his criticism of the railroad metaphor.
Cross' analogy of professors to railway workers may seem straightforward, but an accurate understanding of history actually undermines his position. Railway staffing disputes erupted in the 1960s, as automated braking systems reduced the number of employees needed to operate the nation's railroads. But when rail companies rushed to layoff brakemen and other positions they deemed "obsolete," unions warned that this would leave trains understaffed in cases of mechanical malfunction or the injury or negligence of remaining workers. At issue was not simply the elimination of a "job for life" but a genuine debate over public safety. That debate continues to this day, as railroad and unions still clash over staff reductions. As recently as 2013, staff reductions were blamed for the fatal derailment and explosion of a freight train in Canada.
More generally, there comes a time when the downsizing makes it difficult for the organization to carry out its functions, and the loss of institutional memory hurts.
Weakening tenure and shared governance at the University of Wisconsin will not result in a literal train-wreck, but the analogy is more instructive than Cross intended. Professors opposed the changes not because they eliminated "a job for life," but because they shut faculty out of decisions that may affect the quality of education. "Jobs for life" is a political talking point that has no place in a serious discussion of tenure. In fact, under the previous policy, faculty could be dismissed in cases of misconduct or fiscal emergency. During the recent debate, faculty representatives at Madison and other campuses proposed expanding those criteria to allow program discontinuation for bona fide educational reasons. They objected, however, when the Regents rejected their proposals and instead allowed discontinuation of programs deemed costly or unprofitable, even when they advance important curricular or pedagogical goals. The Regents also weakened faculty responsibility for those decisions, shifting power decisively toward the chancellors and the president.

The question is not whether a particular position or program will be eliminated, but who will make that decision and what factors they will consider. Administrators may be more familiar with the financial stakes involved but faculty, like workers on the railway, are more familiar with conditions on the ground. Cutting us out of the decision making process will make it harder for students to get the skills and education they need, and for the university to remain at the forefront of research and innovation. This will not increase efficiency or serve the interest of businesses, communities or the people of our state, but it will almost certainly lead to costly accidents.
Yes. Administrative usurpations have worked so well for higher education.

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