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Don Downs: Wisconsin’s Plan to Pull Back on Tenure Misguided

In a recent Politico piece, “Scott Walker’s Latest Crusade Will Hurt Conservatives Like Us,” University of Wisconsin - Madison professors Donald Downs and John Sharpless explain in detail how the tenure restrictions in the state of Wisconsin’s current budget proposal could backfire. As FIRE’s Peter Bonilla discussed previously on The Torch, “If passed into law, the proposal would make it far easier to remove tenured faculty. Terminating such faculty would no longer be solely a last resort to be taken only when finances are tapped or in response to serious academic misconduct or criminal activity.” As Downs and Sharpless explain,

[T]he right at stake is academic freedom, which requires the honest and fearless pursuit of truth that lies at the heart of universities’ moral charter. Outnumbered and often targeted for our beliefs by members of the campus left, constitutional conservatives like us—who take individual liberty, freedom of speech and academic freedom very seriously—have long relied on tenure to protect our right to dissent and to preserve the free exchange of ideas in academia.

Today—perhaps more than ever—truly free speech on college campuses is under threat nationwide[.] Think of the “speech codes” limiting what students and professors can say; the silencing of those who deviate from campus orthodoxies; and the “dis-invitation” of unwelcome graduation speakers deemed insufficiently progressive, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis University, George Will at Scripps College and even former University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau at Haverford College.

The Wisconsin legislature, and Governor Scott Walker, have cast this proposal as a cost-saving measure. However, as discussed in Downs and Sharpless’ piece, “just cause” termination of tenured professors already includes “economic necessity.” As the professors point out, the Governor’s proposal would put academics with minority viewpoints or positions contrary to their campus administrations at risk, which on many campuses means that conservative voices are more likely to be suppressed. But regardless of who would be affected, legislators must be very cautious about taking steps that might put academic freedom at risk.

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