Sad Iron


UW Struggle: Narrative Shift, or tl;dr

Sad-IronFor the past few years I’ve used this space to be a reporter of sorts. I have reported on events, while also indulging my Carver-esque appetite for exploring how we talk about things. The results have been mixed in that each revelation immediately shoulders the great Ecclesiastical weight of “there is nothing new under the sun”: only people with money matter; power sides with power; top-down authority nurtures incompetence; the platitudes of leadership apply to everyone but leadership; faculty are always the bottom rung; [insert your own maxim that is both contemporary and timeless]. What else is there to say? A lot, I hope. So let me strip this post of humor and video and memes and just talk about what’s missing in Wisconsin: truth, honesty.

Let me offer this openly—there are a lot of people lying about the current state of the UW System. Many have had their lying documented in print, the kind of documentation where you can put two quotes from the same speaker side-by-side and see that they are opposite to each other. No one seems to care about lying all that much anymore—our culture more than tolerates it—thus reinforcing the two irrefutable truths this blog relies on: faculty are always to blame and you won’t believe what’s happened since the last thing that happened. But if “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth,” then I suggest we start telling the truth as a means for discovering it.

In a little detour, yesterday I was reading the text of a Rebecca Solnit speech to journalism students, which focused on how to find the real stories hiding within dominant, mainstream, or monied-interest narratives. The piece is called “To Break the Story You Must Break the Status Quo,” and I was particularly struck by this passage as it might apply to the UW System:

I think of the mainstream media as having not so much a rightwing or leftwing bias but a status-quo bias, a tendency to believe people in authority, to trust institutions and corporations and the rich and powerful…to let people who have been proven to tell lies tell more lies that get reported without questioning, to move forward on cultural assumptions that are readily disproved, and to devalue nearly all outsiders, whether they’re discredited or mocked or just ignored.

I challenge anyone to deny that this accurately describes the rhetorical reality of the UW narrative right now. What is the most glaring proof of all? The tooth-and-nail resistance to the narrative shift caused by the No Confidence votes at campuses across the system. Faculty and staff in the UW, having been thoroughly abandoned by central leadership, are entirely on their own. Although the vast majority of those in power in Wisconsin have ignored faculty at every step of the process, something about these votes has struck a nerve, and a highly coordinated response against these completely non-binding resolutions is the result: the system President, Regents, various Chancellors, newspapers editors, legislators, “think” tanks, punditry, boards of trustees, and even some students make up a mere portion of the “be quiet” chorus, and the term “status quo” is often invoked, as if speaking against traditional top-down authority and against investing wealth with even more power somehow represents a desire to preserve rather than change.

Another characteristic of the intense backlash against faculty/staff for their recent votes is the usual parade of language that includes words/phrases like “common sense,” “modest,” “in line with our peers.” So here’s my question: if this is all so “common sense” and “modest” then why do you have to lie so much about process and intentions? Why are people who drone on about “accountability” for others allowed to act without any accountability to the institutions they are supposed to represent? The obvious answer is that none of this is modest or relies on common sense, but let’s document some things first. [I’m well aware that people using the word “lie” or “lying” is seen as uncivil and oh so beyond the pale. But I’m more literal about it: you’re either lying or you’re not.]

So, yesterday the Governor’s office finally released documents related to their attempt to change the language of the Wisconsin Idea. At the time, the Governor attributed this all to a mistake and a “drafting error,” and the current documents confirm that this was a lie. Even when the claim was first made, Politifact Wisconsin labeled it “Pants on Fire.” Let us not forget that the two words that precede “pants on fire” in the traditional children’s expression are “liar, liar.” [Together, “liar, liar, pants on fire is a textbook example of the rhetorical force of trochaic tetrameter, but enough about poetry.] Instead, the documents reveal that the process was being “driven by the Governor’s office” and “The Gov requested a simplified and clearer mission and purpose statements” (35). If all of this is so minor, why lie about it?

Also aligning against faculty is system President Ray Cross. And though people are outraged that faculty might voice displeasure in the system President, none of the stories about the “No Confidence” votes asks if anyone, anywhere, should have confidence in someone who has lied to them and had that lie documented. What am I talking about? As I wrote before, President Cross’s go-to rhetorical device was that the tenure statutes had “simply moved” and that there were no substantive changes. But what did yet another FOIA request reveal in an email? That they hadn’t “simply moved.” In fact, he wrote “This program discontinuance debate has exposed the real value of removing tenure-related policies from statutory language.” The public statement was blatantly dishonest, while the more private email illustrates what everyone knew to be the truth. So again, if what you’re doing is so right and common-sense based, why lie about it? In what ways are you accountable and “transparent” in this?

The Board of Regents is clearly aligned against faculty (that was the sole purpose for many of their appointments) and they have the power to enact changes without apology. In fact, they can state what they want to do, why, and then do it. Yet they still lie about it. For example, the Board of Regents went through the usual dishonest circus that surrounds predetermined outcomes: we have many people participating, we’re listening, etc. They made a big show of being “open to suggestions” on wording changes to policy. This of course was another lie, as documented by the Capital Times, with the key contradiction being, “staying on message and tamping down opposition on the tenure issue were priorities for top UW system officials….Regent Tim Higgins messaged Behling and regent president Regina Millner that day about putting off the entreaties of the UW-Whitewater leader of a system-wide effort to amend tenure policy proposals before the vote. ‘I believe that it’s important that all Regents support the task force recommendations as presented,’ Higgins wrote.” Again, if this is all so common sense and modest, why lie about it all? Why is it more important to hold faculty accountable for telling the truth?

And the lies go on and on: deliberate misrepresentations of faculty-to-student ratio, deliberate misrepresentations of the decline in state support for higher education, lies about “jobs for life,” out toward infinity. It never stops. Still, even though faculty/staff have consistently told the truth throughout this entire process, almost no one sides with us, ever. Why? I’m tempted to refer to the Solnit quote above and talk about our deep fetishizing of power and “the boss,” but I don’t want to sound academic (that’s something one has to apologize for).

But let me suggest to anyone out there, regardless of political stripes, to at least ask yourselves why people who claim recent changes are “no big deal” continually have to lie about them, all while clambering for accountability. If I’m going to go to the store to buy carrots and milk, I say I’m going to the store to buy carrots and milk. It’s no big deal. It’s common sense (I need those things), and it’s modest ($4.00). I don’t scapegoat one of my kids for needing to go (“She always spills all the milk!”)

Of course, the lying does serve a purpose—it distracts from other stories that might shift the narrative to unpleasant places and upset the status quo. In other words, we might start talking about the real stories. For example:

  • Not one media story I can find, not one, addresses that UW faculty who already have tenure have been stripped of an earned property right. Put another way, if there’s anything I can think of that is antithetical to true conservative governance, it’s taking away people’s earned property/compensation. You might not like professors, but I think something people dislike even more is government taking away property/compensation that people have already earned. That is exactly what is happening in Wisconsin now. This is a story. It has yet to be told. It will take a shift in narrative and a brave media for that to happen, thus the hard push to paint middle class, hard-working faculty as “out of touch.”


  • Not one story I can find, anywhere, addresses dishonesty as a, dare I say, common sense reason for a No Confidence resolution. The dishonesty has been documented. So I’ll ask anyone out there, regardless of your job: would you have confidence in a boss or authority who lied to you? This is really a simple yes or no question. This is a story. It is just beginning to be told.


  • Instead of fetishizing how many people get fired, or even wanting people fired, will a media outlet shift discussion toward the lengthy, mega-thorough hiring process the system must go through for each faculty hire? There’s a reason a lot of people don’t get fired—the hiring process is one of the most thorough and time-consuming in the world, and we should be praised for that (even if it can be cumbersome). That’s a story waiting to be told.


  • Traditional media outlets are unwilling to take on Governor Walker’s deliberately dishonest claim that the UW System’s budget is bigger than ever, even when he doesn’t account for inflation. Instead, we have to rely on resourceful, thorough bloggers like Jake (the best blog going), and actual data provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which verified, “In fact, if you exclude the shifted funding responsibility for the technical college system — which appears as additional state support — state funding for Wisconsin’s public two- and four-year institutions has fallen by roughly 25 percent per student since 2008.  This includes large-scale higher education cuts from Wisconsin lawmakers in 2015, including a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin system that caused harmful ripple effects on many of the system’s campuses.” This is a story that needs to be told. It’s waiting. It’s not a “point of view.” It’s a story that won’t permit Governor Walker to take credit for federal aid (which he usually abhors) and student-paid tuition as part of a “budget.”


  • When will we move past the lie that the majority of UW professors are overpaid (they are not), and that by unequivocally siding with President Cross  and the Regents you are siding against spoiled, overprotected faculty. This is a lie. In fact, the pattern is quite the opposite: in standing against UW faculty/staff, people always side with people who make more money and have more job security. I will use myself as an example: My starting salary in the UW System, with a phd, was $40,000. At nearly 15 years in, I am just now hitting $50,000 with a family of four. To go over 50, I have to take overload assignments, secure stipends for research related work, etc. A number of my graduating students earn starting salaries that exceed my current pay (which I’m very happy for). Newsflash: President Cross’s starting salary was $525,000; he was also awarded tenure, although he has never taught a course in the UW or gone through the tenure process in a UW department (when I switched campuses, I had to give up tenure and start over). Put another way, by standing against faculty, you actually side with people who make far more money than faculty and have far more job security. Think about that. The man makes almost a half a million dollars more per year than me…and I’m “out of touch” with the “real world”? This applies almost uniformly to Regents members; does Regent Grebe make less than the average faculty member at one of the comprehensives? I’ll just wager…no. This is a story that’s not being told: almost everyone siding against faculty and these resolutions have pay and benefits that far exceed that of the targeted population. That is the definition of today’s status quo. Accountability only moves downhill.


  • When will the media help shift the narrative away from the lie that faculty, regardless of their feelings about the issue, have nothing at all to do with tuition. Tuition is not set by faculty, who have power over almost nothing. Yet Governor Walker and various representatives are allowed to misinform the public that current attacks on faculty, and the system, have something to do with their connection to higher tuition, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a story here that needs to be told. That story is that we can lower tuition by increasing state support for the UW, or #fundthefreeze. That narrative shift would expose the lie that freezing tuition while simultaneously cutting the UW budget serves any purpose beyond starving the institution until it crumbles. Don’t believe me? Well, the Governor, who continually harps about the tuition freeze, was very much in favor of tuition increases under the public authority model; just look at his old press releases (h/t Nick Fleisher): “Keeping Governor Walker’s promise, the resident undergraduate tuition freeze will continue for two more years making it four straight years tuition has been frozen.  After that, the UW System Authority institutions will have flexibility to adjust tuition based on demand, making them more competitive and market-based.” Sounds like a different tune to me, but I’m sure immature faculty are to blame somehow.

I could provide bullet points forever. Story: Remember the legislature’s outrage about the UW “cash reserves”? Those reserves have nothing to do with faculty, at all. If this was such a problem, then why has the legislature responded by moving to increase the power of the very administrative positions they blamed for the reserves? Story: faculty don’t write or pass budgets or collect state revenue, yet why are they the central focus of cost “reform”? Story: For all the talk of “openness” and “modest” and “common sense,” it wasn’t modest enough to warrant public discussion. Always forgotten is the fact that these changes came via a budget bill, deliberately inserted into the process in a way to limit or eliminate discussion. Story: I literally have a list of 50 other items to add here.

These posts write themselves now, which is why I have to move on. For some final thoughts, there are a few truths worth stating clearly; these are truths that I have searched for and found. First, the “No Confidence” resolutions, regardless of your position on them, have shifted points of discussion into the public in a more visible fashion. This is good. Our system President believes he has the right to conduct the business of a public university in private, and these resolutions have, by the sheer volume of discussion, helped shift the narrative. There’s a long way to go. Second, faculty and staff have, throughout this process, been the truth tellers, and they’ve had to largely go it alone. I’m learning that that’s what it takes to get a story told.

In the end, the reason this is all being made to be about faculty is to provide cover for this reality: no one wants to pay for anything anymore, ever, while still wanting the benefits provided; people who scream “taxpayer!” the loudest would rather not pay taxes (I want to pay taxes; it’s one of the great acts of community). What’s in store for the UW has nothing to do with resolutions, or blogs, or who said what on Tuesday. It has to do with revenue. As we all know, other people are responsible for that, many of them currently pointing their fingers at faculty members who might make 60k with a phd for working 80 hours a week. But none of that generates revenue; policy does that. Corey Robin, in writing about similar neglect and scapegoating in the CUNY system, wrote, “Excellence doesn’t come cheap. Just ask Harvard.” Now that’s some truth.

Thankfully, I’m done now. Beyond my sub-zero morale and a decade plus of people telling me I’m worthless while working my butt off and paying taxes, I’ll be moving on to committee/governance work that precludes my writing much here. That being said, I’m willing to turn this space over to others and a series of guest posts. Upside: you’ll have nine readers, including my mom. (Hi mom! Love you. I’ll be making sauce soon.)







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