By Jessica McBride Special to Published Jun 17, 2015 at 11:26 AM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

Over and over again, in the public debate about the UW system, people toss around rhetoric that feels generic and, in some cases, demonstrates a misunderstanding about how the university system operates. If we’re going to radically change such a key engine to our state’s economy – and I don’t think we should – let’s at least understand the facts.

Some of that rhetoric is just polemical. For example, people say over and over again that the university should run like a business. That’s not a factual statement, so it’s not really a myth. But I will logically counter it.

People who say "why shouldn’t universities operate exactly like private businesses" misunderstand the special role that public universities play toward the common good. It’s critically important in a free society that public researchers be allowed to pursue the evidence, wherever it controversially leads, and that they are not punished for their ideas. That’s called academic freedom, and it’s why tenure exists. Otherwise, we might as well be living in Putin’s Russia. Just look at how cigarette companies treated researchers who found a nexus between smoking and lung cancer to understand the distinction between profit motive and the public good in a free society.

That doesn’t mean that there is not SOME truth in the statement; perhaps the universities’ accounting could be more transparent and consolidated. Perhaps in some fiscal accounting ways, universities could become more like businesses.

But, if we’re going to "run the university like a business," let’s go all the way. We should pay the best and brightest competitive wages then so they don’t leave for peer universities or private business (yet I hear people complaining about the salaries of the top professors who bring in a ton of grant money and they tend to argue – in almost Marxist fashion, ironically – that people should all cap out around $50,000 a year). Furthermore, if we are going to run the university like a business, then it would be a poor business decision to gut tenure (or render it moot through layoff language) because competitor universities offer tenure. You can’t expect the best and brightest to come here or stay if they can get a better employment package elsewhere.

That’s just good business. Furthermore, when has it made good business sense to trash and call your top talent names? 

Anyways, here are the top myths about the UW:

1. Tenure means no one can ever be fired; it’s a "job guarantee for life."

Reality: Actually, tenure just means it’s harder – a lot harder – to fire someone because you don’t like their ideas or because their research is controversial. There is no guarantee for life. People with awful performance – say a teacher who stops coming to class or who sexually harasses a student – can still be ousted. The standard is "just cause," and the professors have due process rights. That’s how academic freedom is protected while still allowing the truly awful performers to be kicked out.

2. Tenure protects awful professors.

Reality: I am sure that tenure protects some awful professors because awful people exist in every profession. However, no one ever provides any definition as to what would constitute "awful" nor documents that such awfulness exists. And, as noted, professors can be ousted for just cause now (or fiscal emergency).

But even stipulating that there must be some awful professors, it’s extremely difficult to get tenure in the first place. One recent news story reported that, at UW-Eau Claire, 50 percent of people who go up for tenure don’t get it. People who don’t get tenure (or indefinite status for academic staff) lose their jobs. Thus, logic would hold that you can’t be that awful or you wouldn’t have likely gotten tenure in the first place. It’s an extremely rigorous vetting process.

To obtain tenure requires years of probationary work and numerous stages of approval. Professors must document excellence in their fields. And, again, if a professor is truly and objectively "awful," there is a process to oust that professor, tenured or not. What I think would be very dangerous would be to allow subjective political judgments to come into a determination of what’s "awful." That’s more likely without tenure.

This is not a hypothetical. This spring, one top Republican lawmaker actually wrote to the bosses of a professor whose research he didn’t like and suggested he might be an example of someone who should teach more classes. He called the professor’s research on Right to Work "partisan garbage." Professors should not be immune from criticism, even from legislators, although trying to interfere with their job assignment by writing their bosses strikes me as different. But this does show why tenure is needed. What is "awful"? That can be subjective when politics comes into play.

3. Professors are lazy and barely teach, and some of them make obscene amounts of money.

Reality: I suppose some such things are in the eye of the beholder, although I think the name calling of our intelligentsia is utterly unseemly and completely counterproductive to retaining and recruiting top talent that is necessary for our state’s future.

However, that aside, if you look at the CVs of the top paid profs, you realize these are cutting-edge scientific and economics researchers who bring thousands and thousands of dollars of grant money into the state. They are also anomalies in terms of pay. And we shouldn’t make policy changes based solely on outliers. Paying some top researcher who brings in gazillions in grant money $50,000 a year sounds rather Marxist to me. It’s odd to me that some Republicans, who claim to value hard work and the success it brings, have so much scorn for people who have bettered themselves by obtaining terminal degrees. And if you don’t think that scorn exists, go read a few comment threads (I was called an "overpaid taxpayer-funded leach" on one and vile, sexist names too nasty to reprint).

In reality, most faculty and staff have received sluggish raises, if that, for years. Many studies have shown that UW faculty and staff are underpaid compared to peer universities. For example, one report noted that "in 2014-15, UW-Madison average salaries remained ranked 12th among our official salary peers for full professors, dropped from 7th place to 8th for associate professors, and rose from 10th to 9th for assistant professors."  (And I’d guess salaries in UW are highest at the flagship). In 2012, Politifact reported, "The Chronicle of Higher Education site shows that all but one of the UW system’s 13 four-year campuses pay professor salaries that are ‘far below’ the national median for full professors at public, private and independent institutions of similar type."

As for the workload issue, I think workload should be better documented by the university and more transparent. I am sure it wouldn’t kill a few people to teach an additional class. But the "lazy professor argument" misunderstands the role of research in a cutting-edge university system. Do we really want the aforementioned scientific researchers who bring in gazillions in grant money teaching undergraduates with all of their time instead?

And it’s not just the scientists. What about professors of history? Doesn’t historical research matter in a free society? Of course it does.

These professors are under great pressure to develop track records of research and publication to obtain tenure. Personally, I prefer a blend in any university system, and there is one at UW. Some instructors focus on research and teaching – historical, freshwater science, engineering, and so forth – and others teach more. I think most people in the system would agree that there is a dual mission of research and teaching. To say everyone should just "teach more" misunderstands the research mission. I think research is important to any forward-thinking society, and this war against researchers (just look at those scientists in the DNR) is deeply troubling.

Which brings me to my next point.

4. Almost everyone in the UW System is a professor.

Reality: Professors dominate the debate. But actually, universities are also made up of academic and classified staff. At UW-Milwaukee, where I teach, the faculty staff is smaller in number than the academic and classified staff; in 2013, for example, there were 822 faculty, 1,632 academic staff or limited appointment and 1110 classified staff.

Academic staff are often the teaching workhorses of the university. So when people trash people for "not working enough" and claim everyone teaches one or two classes a semester, they leave out the fact that academic staff (who are full-time) often teach three, four or even five classes a semester. They may have master’s degrees and extensive professional experience in industry. You could make every professor teach more, but they would likely teach more theory courses because many are theorists and researchers.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to mandate that the Board of Regents stop giving indefinite status to academic staff after July 1, by the way (while leaving tenure up to the Regents; indefinite status is the academic staff equivalent). That’s received almost no attention because the debate is dominated by tenure. Basically the JFC is treating the teaching workhorses more harshly while the rhetoric on the right attacks researchers and praises the teaching mission. Seems inconsistent to me.

It annoys me when people say "professors never teach." Every professor I’ve known teaches their own classes. Sometimes with huge lecture classes, TAs help out, but they aren’t in charge and don’t deliver the lectures. Academic staff teach their own classes.

5. Shared governance applies to all.

Reality: Instructional academic staff have higher oversight committees, but they are barred from serving on departmental executive committees that are ruling authorities in departments when it comes to personnel issues and budgetary allocations. There is a small ruling elite that governs departments, really: the PhDs. This is not to insult or attack them; it’s to state reality. I personally think if shared governance remains, that the academic staff should be empowered to share more thoroughly in it. I have mixed feelings on shared governance. I have seen it work really well, and I have seen it work very poorly. It’s problematic to have a caste system where so many of those who teach are locked out of governance in departments.

6. There is a massive slush fund in the UW. The deans are basically the dwarves from "Lord of the Rings," sitting on a mountain of gold.

Reality: There is no Arkenstone at Bascom Hall. I’ve explained this 100 million times and still people repeat this old canard. People shouldn’t argue current issues with old "facts." The reality: The "slush fund" was years ago. There was a very austere budget since then, the money was largely committed monies for things like building projects and the like, and all universities are not the same. Some are now running deficits. In 2013, UW-Milwaukee chancellor Michael Lovell debunked this canard – at least for UWM – in great detail. You can read that here

At UW-Milwaukee, where I work, the institution is now facing a possible $40 million in cuts with $1 million left of discretionary income (I speak for myself here, and not for the university). It was once explained to me that I have a slush fund on the first of every month too. That’s because I get paid. But I don’t really have that money because it’s already committed for other things. Like my car payment, which comes out on the fifth. And my mortgage, which comes out on the second. And so forth. But if you take a snapshot in time on the first, it looks like I am sitting on the Arkenstone (well, not really; I am not a cutting-edge scientific researcher who brings in mega grant money).

That doesn’t mean I think there is "nowhere" to cut in a budget this size. I do. It’s to say that the budget cuts are too big and too fast and are being done without careful thought and planning. And it’s to say that there is not some mystical "slush fund" to bail the system out. This canard almost feels purposeful. It laid the foundation of public support (in some corners) for what was to come.

7. Tenure prevents efficiency. It’s led to a lack of innovation.

Reality: Who knows? I haven’t seen a shred of evidence to document this theory. The solution is being presented without documenting a problem. It’s just as likely that tenure means the best and brightest are unleashed to do their best work because they have academic freedom. It’s just as likely that it means the top talent sticks around, and that wisdom exists to guide the institution. It means there is a rigorous vetting process for hires, and those who can’t cut the mustard don’t get tenure and have to leave the institution.

Let’s stipulate that, in some ways, the UW system could be run more efficiently, though. I am sure any big institution could fine tune some of its practices. I would argue, then, that any changes should be done with great thought, with thorough research and after including all stakeholders – not foisted on the system with generic rhetoric and big budget cuts by July.

8. The Board of Regents is basically the Congress of the UW. The Regents have the best interests of the UW in mind.

Reality:  The second sentence is subjective. As to the first, the Regents are a political board, pure and simple. They are appointed almost entirely by the governor. His most recent appointment was the son of his campaign chairman. This is why taking tenure out of state law – especially when combined with the rhetoric of those who argue it’s bad – scares professors and creates uncertainty. It’s leaving tenure up to a political board in the future. They are remaking it as policy now but what of the layoff language? And what about down the road?

9. Chill out. This is no big deal. No other states have tenure in state statutes, so now Wisconsin is just like other states. The legislature hasn’t really done anything.

Reality: Then why change it? What’s the driving need? Other states don’t all have the new layoff language the legislature also inserted into the budget. And many faculty and staff think that language basically renders tenure moot because it greatly expands the ability to lay off faculty for things like "program modification." That’s the sticking point now. And when you put it all together – the rhetoric about lazy professors, the budget cuts, shared governance, tenure – it’s troubling to people. And that raises concerns that people will leave or not come here.

10. This will stop professors from being so liberal and make universities more ideologically diverse.

Reality: This argument is basically urging the use of government power to target people because of their ideology. That’s terribly wrong. And it’s exactly what upset conservatives about the John Does and the IRS scandal.

Furthermore, I don’t think all professors are liberal. However, as someone perceived as non-liberal on campus, I do have to say that it can be very difficult to not be liberal on campus. I have been subjected to name-calling and other things I won’t get into because I keep in-house business in-house. But it’s been miserable at times. So, I am not going to sit here and argue that there is no kernel of truth to this one. I do think public universities need to welcome different ideological views. Not all people who work in them do (but many people who work in them do).

That being said, even assuming the underlying premise of this statement, gutting tenure won’t make people less liberal – it will make them leave the state. Furthermore, what about the conservative professors who do exist? Whose views do you think are most controversial on a college campus? Over at Marquette, how long do you think conservative Professor John McAdams would have lasted without tenure or with program modification layoff language? Every university benefits from its iconoclasts. Tenure is the only thing giving McAdams a fighting chance.

That’s the irony. If you accept that universities are intolerant to conservatives, then I would think conservatives would desire to protect academic freedom all the more. I personally support academic freedom for all, including the few people who weren’t that kind to me. On principle, I think it’s important.

Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.