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Academic Freedom Challenges Bring Contingent Faculty Insecurity to the Forefront

The EvoLLLution | Academic Freedom Challenges Bring Contingent Faculty Insecurity to the Forefront
Non-traditional divisions need to take the lead on ensuring their contingent faculty have academic freedom and security, especially as the teaching role becomes disaggregated.

In Wisconsin, public higher education is facing critique and change that very few leaders across the country have ever seen. Once guaranteed by state law, academic freedom and tenure have now become matters for the public system to manage, creating a ripple of concern for faculty statewide. These concerns related to security and academic freedom, though, are commonplace for contingent faculty nationwide, and they tend to be swept under the rug as contingent faculty are often part time and never on the tenure track. In this interview, Cathy Sandeen brings this issue out into the open and shares her thoughts on the role of non-traditional divisions in leading the charge on guaranteeing academic freedom and security to these educators.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How does the change in state statute regarding tenure at public institutions impact academic freedom in Wisconsin?

Cathy Sandeen (CS): Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin are unique in that the tenured positions were part of law, they were in state statute. In all other institutions, to our knowledge, tenure provision and policies are articulated in Board of Trustees or Board of Regent policy. What the legislature in Wisconsin is saying: “We’re taking tenure out of law and we’re directing the Board of Regents to address tenure in their own policies.” Essentially, they are aligning the University of Wisconsin with other institutions.

That said, this has a real symbolic impact on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin. They’ve always had great pride in the fact that tenure was in law and that in some way meant it was stronger in Wisconsin.

The most important point is how tenure is directly related to academic freedom. Academic freedom is the freedom for faculty to teach and to do research without interference from government, political influences, commercial interests and so forth. It’s the freedom to teach and conduct research on what they believe is important regardless of whether the subject is unpopular or controversial. We definitely see this in current research areas like stem cell and climate change. It’s important to provide that freedom to our faculty in order for them to make new discoveries and create new knowledge.

Because tenure will remain in policy in Wisconsin, academic freedom will continue to be protected as well. There was another provision put in law that would loosen the reasons by which the institution could terminate tenured faculty. Typically it’s because of extreme financial emergency or for cause, but now the law in Wisconsin broadens it to allow for less restrictive reasons for terminating tenured faculty. That has faculty worried as well.

Evo: If there are no academic freedom protections at the governmental level, couldn’t institutions still guarantee tenure? And in that case, wouldn’t the same system then be in place as in other states?

CS: The same system will be in place. The University of Wisconsin will have tenure within its board policies and it will have protection for academic freedom.

Evo: How does the change in the tenure statute impact the work you and your colleagues do at Colleges and Extension?

CS: We need to look at it from a short- and long-term perspective. In the short term, our faculty members are invited to provide input to the Board of Regents in terms of how they craft the new tenure policy and the new layoff policy. In the short term, I don’t see any changes because these protections will still be afforded.

There may be a long-term chilling effect in terms of faculty retention and recruitment. We’ve already had one faculty member resign to take a job in another state and he cited what’s going on in Wisconsin as part of the reason for taking another job. It’s possible that this could impact our ability to retain and recruit top faculty.

Evo: And that inability to retain and recruit top faculty could have an impact on student demand.

CS: I hope this doesn’t wind up being the case. We believe that the board is writing a policy that will prevent a negative ripple effect from happening.

That said, we also believe in the overall strong brand of the University of Wisconsin and that it should be able to weather the storm.

Evo: Are there special considerations regarding tenure for institutions and schools with a non-traditional focus?

CS: When we look at schools, divisions, institutions that are focused on non-traditional students, many times these institutions use a high proportion of part-time, non-tenure or non-tenure track faculty—what we call contingent faculty.

These are individuals who are on limited-term appointments that are renewable on an annual basis or some other interval of time. Recent events in Wisconsin got me thinking about what these changes mean for the academic freedom for these individuals. Are they more restricted in terms of what they feel they can teach? For the most part, faculty who are teaching in programs that address non-traditional students are teaching faculty. They’re involved in scholarship, but research is not a huge amount of their job.

How do we ensure or address this conversation of academic freedom in the world of contingent faculty, who are so important in educating non-traditional students? We already have something of a multi-tiered system with faculty. We need to address that, especially when it comes to the important value of this academic freedom.

Evo: What are the future implications to the changes to the tenure system and how are they going to impact public education in Wisconsin as a whole?

CS: The importance of academic freedom will be affirmed by the Board of Regents and we will continue to function in Wisconsin as we always have. University of Wisconsin policy does mention academic freedom for part-time faculty in a general way.

What this conversation has really opened up for me, personally, is a bigger issue. That is, looking at the broad range of faculty that we have within North American higher education. We have some traditional full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty whose academic freedom is affirmed in a formal manner. Then we also have this broader group of part-time and full-time faculty who do not have ongoing security of employment. How do we address and affirm their right to academic freedom?

Evo: Non-traditional divisions are typically at the forefront of innovation and change in the higher education space. How do you think non-traditional divisions can take the lead in minimizing the two-tiered nature of academic freedom and security for faculty?

CS: The leaders of non-traditional programs have an obligation to address this issue. I do believe they can take a lead in defining what it means. How do we incorporate all faculty in shared governance and issues that are important and how do we create an environment where there is freedom to have some say in what is taught and how it’s taught? How does this affect our students and how can we develop a system that creates the most positive environment for student outcomes?

Raising this issue in the non-traditional space is important. Tenure isn’t a big factor but academic freedom should be. In an online world, we’re talking about disaggregating the faculty role where some people are focused on designing courses while others are focused on delivering content. The degree of academic freedom that faculty may exercise is dependent on their role. I believe that putting some structure and understanding around that would be a good thing.

This interview has been edited for length.

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