So many people are writing about what is happening in Missouri, and rightly so. Many familiar contexts are playing out—what it means for sports, for universities, for protest and how quickly the powers that be can neuter it—but as an observer from afar, I will only attempt to make the loosest of connections here. If I could latch onto a single truth among many that I see there, it’s this:
A number of Missouri students, faculty, and staff demanded that their system President actually stand for something.
A quick look at the list of demands makes this breathtakingly obvious. Let’s just say that, when finally raising their voices, “the needs of business,” “nimble flexovation,” and “the 21st century global blah blah blah” weren’t highly prioritized. In short, there is a truly human agenda: quality of life, inclusion, healthcare, social justice, spending more on important resources.
Which brings me back to the UW System.
I’ve long felt conflicted about how much anger I should reserve for the system President, or any system President of a public system—being angry at such people is like being mad at the Queen of England. We’re essentially talking about well-paid middle management whose main purpose is to enact the wishes of the true sources of power: state legislatures and their financial backers. So the Missouri protests trained a good amount of focus on individuals (the President, Chancellor), who quickly became compensated fall guys for their role in assuring that a change in personnel is synonymous with structural change, which it isn’t. (This is what people mean when they say that things like gender discrimination are systemic—the system survives the individuals who participate.) Any incoming President in Missouri will be vetted to insure they can say the right things, repackage the status quo, and most importantly, ensure that football continues (i.e. the appropriate people get paid; the Romney people from Bain will be at this week’s BYU game, after all). But the situation is still unfolding, and maybe such quick managerial touch-ups will also be rejected.
Which takes us to power sports like football and basketball. It’s probably time to recognize that the only thing preserving a protective aura around UW Madison is the sports. Reality: a lot of hostile legislators really like their games (I’ve documented the Twitter feeds and Facebook posts. We pass resolutions in the Assembly congratulating running backs.) A lot of people with gobs of money like their games, hence, welcome our new
But if a lot of energy is wasted raging against figureheads and symbols (see: “But faculty!”), the folks at Missouri have shown that it is perfectly appropriate to ask figureheads to fill their primary function: stand for something; be symbolic.
Genuine question: based on what we see in our UW central leadership and President, what do we stand for in the UW? If you only had actions and statements to judge by, who are we now?
I confess to longing for our visible public contribution to important cultural issues. As a taxpayer, I hunger for that from my University System. I’m the type of person who would ask, “The UW employs a lot of people, I wonder what their positions on labor issues might be and what research they offer.” Or maybe, “I wonder what the university’s stance is on climate change. How will it affect us here in Wisconsin and what should we be doing?” Or the skies forbid, “What does research in the UW show about gun violence? About income inequality? How can this help us advance debate and quality of life?”
Of course, such statements are completely nonexistent in any centralized form, and that’s because we don’t have a President who feels at liberty to contribute to our social discourse—the position of “President” has been reduced to that of “Lobbyist” and should probably undergo the appropriate title change in order to avoid false expectations. For me, “President” is a word that carries a lot of symbolic heft and meaning. Of course, since it is us, the citizenry, who have allowed the university, like pretty much everything else, to be perceived as a biased special interest rather than a resource or contributing voice, that is where the blame lies. After all, “Faculty! Tenure! Congratulations Badgers Football on moving into the top 25!”
But what if students, and student athletes, started actively addressing what we stand for as a system based on our actions? Based on where our leadership has stood on particular issues that have a more than significant impact on Wisconsin life? I’d be curious to know. Would you?
For example, from WisPolitics.com:
JFC Co-chair JOHN NYGREN, R-Marinette, has promoted XXXXXXXXXX to chief of staff. XXXXX, an aide to Nygren for the past three years, replaces JEFF SCHOENFELDT, who has taken a job with the UW System as director of state relations. Schoenfeldt replaces XXXXXX, who has joined the lobbying firm Capitol Consultants Inc.
So again we’re manning central administration with political lobbyists and operatives from a single political affiliation (to be fair, it sounds like that’s what “state relations” is: lobbying). I do not know Mr. Schoenfelt, so he might be a great guy; and there has been no system announcement about this that I can find. That said, I wonder if someone who had signed the recall petition could be hired into such a position. Well, if a student gets yanked from the Board of Regents for signing the recall, I’m going to say no.
Here’s one thing I know for sure: when you are on a politician’s staff, you support, promote, and work for the passing of that person’s agenda. Here are some quick vote tallies for Representative Nygren, and I am not personally commenting on them (no one cares what “Faculty!” think), but I’d be interested to know if students, parents, and alumni see these as things that our University system stands for:
Voted no to take up the issue of student loan debt.
Voted yes to reduce funding for Planned Parenthood.
Voted yes on taxpayer funding for the Milwaukee Bucks arena plan.
Voted yes to cut UW System funding by a quarter of a billion dollars.
Voted yes to drug testing for people claiming benefits.
Voted yes for “Right to Work” legislation.
Voted yes to limit early voting.
And now you’re hired.
I could go on, specifically in relation to which political party is supportive of restricting access to open records, as well as making sure that donors are protected from things like boycotts… you know, which the Missouri football team just showed to be pretty effective. I know that, when talking to a good number of faculty, many of us feel abandoned by central leadership. But it makes sense in the political context, no? To stand up for “Faculty!” is to surrender your rhetorical punching bag. Beating up on “Faculty!” and all of the connotations involved, allows one to connect with legislators rather than alienate them. Still, when I look at any business, a lot of my judgement is formed by how they treat their employees. Let’s just say that it is hard to find obvious advocates right now.
So what do we stand for? Will students, and/or student athletes start demanding we stand for more, particularly through the voice of our system President? This is my way of saying that if real change is ever going to come via protest instead of pure legislative action, it has always, and only, been the students, alumni, and their support networks who can make that happen. No other voice has the economic heft to matter when the economic heft is all that matters. (See: football.)
Anyway, just thinking out loud. Thanks again to my nine readers (Hi Mom! Love you! Hope Greece was awesome.)