Scott Walker’s Tenure Bomb

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything, but I’ve been recently fascinated by the fight over tenure in Wisconsin and felt the need to get my thoughts down on paper.  Scott Walker has recently decided to end tenure at University of Wisconsin and has been pushing his reforms through the legislature.  I’ve seen a lot of commentary on how this will hurt the University of Wisconsin (it will), hurt the state of Wisconsin (probably), and is just beating up on a small group to win points in the GOP nomination (it is, and it’s brilliant).  What I haven’t seen is analysis looking further down the game tree – which is that Scott Walker’s move threatens the future of all American public universities.

First of all, I fully expect this to pass and prove popular.  Professors are not the most sympathetic group in the world, and a gaggle of entitled eggheads complaining about losing their cushy jobs-for-life will not play well.  If Walker begins mass layoffs of Democrats, that might change – but I suspect that gradually chipping away at their privileges will prove quite successful.  It will play well to the base while cutting away at the power structure of a hated enemy.  Why wouldn’t other governors do the same?

Tenure is an arrangement that rests on trust.  It’s a very long-term contract that is secured by nothing but the faith of the issuing institution, kind of like a sovereign bond.  Imagine you hold Portuguese bonds and Spain defaults tomorrow with no consequences – how does that change your expectation of getting paid? Imagine you are a tenured professor at University of Nebraska or Ole Miss – how does the Wisconsin reform change the credibility of your tenure? Every professor at a red-state public university – especially in politically-sensitive fields – should be looking for a new job right now, and probably is.  And even if you are in a relatively liberal state, the long-term value of your tenure has deteriorated considerably – someday in the future a conservative will win the governorship, and likely strip your tenure protections.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and Walker’s reforms will be beaten back and the status quo will remain.  However, I suspect that Walker’s move has suddenly flipped public universities from a high-trust equilibrium to a low-trust equilibrium.  If so, the effects could be very far-ranging indeed, even in states where no such reforms are even considered.  By becoming an object of debate the credibility of the tenure contract at state universities has just plummeted.  If I am right, the next few years should see a massive outflow of talent from state universities to private universities and the private sector.  It’s a depressing prospect for America’s great state universities, but I’m not sure if there’s a way to stop it – trust is very hard to reestablish once it’s been shaken.

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