It’s time for the UW to value an industry background alongside degree credentials. It’s time to lift hundreds of deserving people of color and women into positions of power.
If UW System leaders truly care about diversity and inclusion, and if Republican legislators truly care about job training and workforce development for students, I am calling on both to fix the problem I will outline below. Do it now.
There is a simple step that the UW System’s leaders, Gov. Tony Evers, and Republican legislators could take NOW to immediately improve diversity on campus AND to bolster the system’s workforce development mission, providing a better experience for students, industry, and taxpayers.
That sounds like a no-brainer. Yet no one is talking about it.
Right now, state law and university system rules do not mandate that all of the system’s more than 5,500 full-time instructional academic staff share in decision-making authority across the UW System. This should be mandated. In some universities in the UW System, they are expressly banned from doing so because they don’t have tenure or terminal degrees, even though many have master’s degrees, decades of industry experience, teach the most, and have deep industry ties.
To crystallize this absurdity through example: My university’s journalism program could hire Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite (before his death) to teach broadcast journalism, and they would be banned from making decisions on the broadcast journalism classes we offer or which type of instructor we should hire next because they don’t have tenure or PhDs. Instead, the decisions would be made by PhD theorists with tenure who have limited or no television news experience. To put it bluntly.
Make that make sense.
It doesn’t. It’s time to get rid of the UW System’s archaic hierarchies that value degree over industry experience. Both should be valued. They should have equal footing. As an added benefit, this change would immediately boost hundreds of instructors of color and women into equal footing in the power structure. It’s a step the UW could take to immediately impact structural racism and gender bias.
If you want to truly reform the UW System to make it more effective for students, more efficient for taxpayers, more diverse, and more connected to employers’ needs, you have to change who is making the decisions, and many of those happen at the department level due to shared governance.
Right now, at UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison, UW-Parkside, and UW-Eau Claire, and likely other universities, you need tenure (or a terminal degree) to sit on an executive committee. To get tenure, you generally need a PhD. A terminal degree means a person has achieved the highest possible educational credential in their field. Generally that is a PhD.
Why this matters: Many instructional academic staff have master’s degrees and extensive experience in industry instead; it’s fairly rare for people to have spent decades in the industry and have a PhD. As a matter of disclosure, I am in this category. I have taught journalism full-time at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for about 20 years. I have won the Alumni Foundation’s teaching excellence award, I have a master’s degree, and I have 25 years of industry experience.
Yet, I’ve been locked out of power-sharing the entire time because I don’t have tenure or a PhD, and I’m far from alone. My story is simply emblematic of the many others in the same position.
To put this briefly into a political context for Republican legislators, that means that those “so-called liberal, Marxist theorists” they so dislike are making the decisions about budgets and curriculum, in some cases instead of people with industry experience and connections that benefit students who, after all, are paying big tuition bills to get jobs in those industries (note to potential faculty censors, I am not saying all tenured faculty are liberal Marxist theorists or that none have industry backgrounds…I’m boiling it down to make a point.)
Department executive committees run by tenured professors are extremely powerful due to shared governance that concentrates power in the UW System in committees at the departmental level, giving them even more power in some respects than deans and chancellors. They make many decisions that affect taxpayers and student tuition payers. They allocate budgets. They hire. They fire. They make decisions on the curriculum. Yes, there are higher committees involved, but, at the core, power is concentrated in these department-level committees.
Now let’s talk about how this impacts diversity. There are also hundreds of instructional academic staff who are people of color in the UW System; yet, at some universities, people in those categories are locked out of power completely, given only an advisory role, even though they often teach the most. There is a significant gender disparity: A larger percentage of women are academic staff than are tenured faculty, so this practice prevents a lot of women from cracking the glass ceiling and sharing in power. Tenured professors are more likely to be researchers. For years, the only instructor of color in our program wasn’t allowed a non-advisory vote on all important departmental matters but taught the most classes and had decades of industry experience. Make that make sense. That instructor left.
For many, many years teaching full-time at UW-Milwaukee, I was never supervised by a female chair (until recently), and I’ve never worked under a department chair who is a person of color. I’ve watched as executive committee members without backgrounds in industries we teach have made some decisions that are not always in the interest of students and those industries.
In my program, Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies, the academic staff historically taught more classes because they (ostensibly anyway) don’t have academic research requirements. Our academic staff instructors have decades of experience in the industries they teach. Other instructors worked for decades in the public relations, advertising, and television industries. They interact constantly with students and place them in internships. However, they can’t sit on their program’s executive committee because they don’t have PhDs or tenure. For years, that executive committee was run by theorist professors who, in many cases, had no, outdated or very little industry experience in these fields. This is not meant to denigrate them. Many of them were excellent researchers and theorists in those fields. They spent a lot of their time writing books and conducting research. But it’s different. One of them believed the rest of us belonged at MATC. Some harbored a clear disdain for academic staff/skills training/workforce development/teaching skills over teaching theory and research.
For years, in my department, there was strong disagreement about hiring priorities between the powerless academic staff (mostly women then) and the powerful executive committee members (mostly men then). We wanted an instructor to do video editing or SEO; they wanted an instructor to teach theory courses, for example.
After years of tension over this fault line, the dean did the right thing and spun us off into a semi-autonomous program that exists under the Communication Department executive committee. This has been working well. I respect the folks in Comm, and they’ve been respectful of our semi-autonomy. They still have the ultimate power, though. The reality remains that the major, final decisions are still being made by tenured professors with PhDs (now in Comm) who have no background at all in the industries we are training our students to succeed in. And that makes no sense. I provide specifics about my program just because it is such a case in point.
But it’s hardly alone.
A few years ago, I learned that the same challenge existed in an American Sign Language program, at least then, to give another example. The instructors did not have tenure, so they were governed by an executive committee from another department that consisted of professors with no ties to that culture.
The rules can be complex and confusing.
University rules do allow a departmental executive committee to “extend the right to vote and participate in departmental meetings to members of the academic staff.” I believe this rarely happens, and at some universities, it’s expressly disallowed. In my university, we sometimes get to sit on faculty committees and vote (but it’s only advisory and different from the true power concentrated in executive committees). And, yes, there are university-wide academic staff committees involved in governance. However, executive committees have the real power.
This right should not have to be “extended.” In other words, the people with power should not be trusted to share it. Get rid of the hierarchy that values a PhD more than industry experience. Change state law to mandate inclusion of instructional academic staff on departmental executive committees.
I reached out to John Lucas, spokesman for UW-Madison. Can you tell me if people without tenure can sit on UW-Madison executive committees that run departments? I asked him.
“They cannot,” he responded.
“Can people without PHDS?” I asked.
“Yes, however, all faculty at UW-Madison have a terminal degree (not necessarily a PhD),” he said.
“If non-tenured people without PHDS (instructional academic staff really) are allowed to serve on departmental executive committees at UW Madison, is that automatic or do they have to be converted or allowed on in a case by case basis?” I asked.
“There is a process at Madison by which academic staff with or without PhDs are able to participate in departmental meetings. This happens pretty regularly across campus,” he said. (I would note that this happens at UWM too, but this participation is advisory. Executive committees have the final say. So it’s a different point.)
“In a practical sense, do many instructional academic staff sit on departmental executive committees at UW-Madison or is this very rare?” I asked Lucas.
“This does not happen,” he responded.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s July 2022 policies and procedures say, “Each department has a Departmental Executive Committee, consisting of all full-time members of the department who are tenured professors or tenured associate professors, and as determined by the Departmental Executive Committee at the time of appointment with tenure, any person holding a part-time appointment as a tenured professor or tenured associate professor…”
The University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s rules say: “Each department shall have a Departmental Executive Committee, consisting of all members of the department who are tenured professors, tenured associate professors, and, with the permission of the committee, tenured assistant professors…”
The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s spokesperson told me, “Departments have Department Personnel Committees that establish criteria and procedures for periodic review and make recommendations on reappointment and granting tenure. DPC Membership is comprised of ‘All tenured faculty with an assignment of 50 percent or more in the department’ (FASRP, p. 47). A Ph.D. is not necessarily required to be granted tenure, if the DPC affirms that the person holds a ‘terminal degree’ appropriate for their field based on national organizational standards.”
I would note that, in my university, a terminal degree has not been a guarantee of inclusion on the Executive Committee. In fact, I’ve seen that denied in the past.
That’s why the discretion should be removed. Instructional academic staff shouldn’t have to fight to share in power. It should be a given.
State law is a bit vaguer.
The faculty of each institution, subject to the responsibilities and powers of the board (of Regents), the president, and the chancellor of such institution, shall have the primary responsibility for advising the chancellor regarding academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters. The faculty of each institution shall have the right to determine their own faculty organizational structure and to select representatives to participate in institutional governance, except that the faculty of each institution shall ensure that faculty in academic disciplines related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are adequately represented in the faculty organizational structure.
How are “faculty” defined? “Faculty” means “persons who hold the rank of professor, associate professor, assistant professor or instructor in an academic department or its functional equivalent in an institution and such academic staff as may be designated by the chancellor and faculty of the institution.”
However, practically speaking, at least at some universities, academic staff are rarely lifted into positions of power. In 2021, I tried to dig into this issue and was told by the secretary of the university at UW-Milwaukee, “If you want to be a department, you will need an EC (executive committee). I cannot imagine you would get permission to form a department without someone having a PhD.” I was also told: “You cannot be on an executive committee unless you are a tenured faculty member.”
Very rarely people are converted to tenure-track positions; for example, some academic staff scientists in the School of Freshwater Sciences were converted to tenure-track positions some time ago so they can qualify for the executive committee, but only tenured instructors can sit on the executive committee.
I asked Mark Pitsch, spokesman for the UW System if you need tenure and/or a PHD to serve on an executive committee system-wide because it gets confusing. He has not yet responded.
It’s easy to find departmental websites specifying that only tenured faculty can sit on executive committees. See here.
UW Academic staff numbers
Systemwide, using the system’s own 2021 numbers, the latest available:
- More than 5,500 employees are instructional academic staff. As a point of comparison, there are over 5,400 “faculty” (people who could serve on executive committees if they get tenure. Not all of them have tenure.)
- More than 650 instructional academic staff are instructors of color. To be honest, the numbers are appalling. Only 138 instructional academic staff members in the entire UW System are black. Maybe rather than spending millions of dollars to create diversity positions and programs, the university should figure out how to recruit and keep talented instructors of all backgrounds. Locking people out of power doesn’t help.
- The faculty is also terribly non-diverse, with 1,120 faculty of color in 2021, boosted by the fact that 702 of those are Asian.
- There is an even bigger gender disparity. At UW-Madison, for example, there were MORE female instructional academic staff than male (1,386 to 1,374) last year. Yet faculty tilt male. There were 1,383 male faculty in 2022 and 907 female faculty.
- Some universities have made it harder to get this information; the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee used to present such information on an online dashboard but now limits it to “campus administrative staff.” The UW System’s statistics dashboard makes it easy to find racial statistics but not gender statistics. I asked Pitsch for those too, but he has not yet provided them.
There are other categories of employment in the UW; there are non-instructional academic staff and classified staff (think people who work in IT and the library). I’d like to see them lifted into governance too, but many aren’t attached to academic departments. Instructional academic staff are often the front-line instructors working with students.
I think it’s most important for front-line teachers with industry backgrounds to have a say over curriculum, budgets, and hiring.
Over the years, I’ve raised the issue and have essentially received this explanation from the people in power, “But it’s always been done this way…”
I’ve spoken directly about it to a legislative leader and a member of the Board of Regents.
The Board of Regents and State Legislature, with Gov. Tony Evers on board, could change this easily, thereby challenging “systemic racism” and gender bias by fundamentally changing the power structure in a way that is more equitable. Yes, that’s using the language from the left, but shouldn’t they practice what they preach?
-Note: This article represents my personal views and not those of the institution where I work.