UW Struggle: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Public Authority Edition

funnythingSo much has happened. But if anyone reads one sentence of this post, let it be this: in the process of resisting the UW’s strict top-down authority, people are making a real difference. We’re active. We’re out there. We’re contacting legislators, connecting with the community, attending joint-finance hearings, crafting editorials and open letters, voicing expectations to campus admin, and openly questioning the UW’s central leadership. It’s working (depending on your goals, of course). This is not to say that results will be favorable, but it should serve as a proud reminder of what might be possible beyond the passing of the current budget. This is a long game.

If you haven’t read Noel Radomski’s chronology of the PA proposal, do so. (I have coffee, I’ll wait.) What does this reveal? UW admin is interested in shared governance as a talking point, not a method of operation. As Karen Herzog’s profile of President Cross documents, Cross has a preference for performing public work in private and the results have been disastrous, rhetorically and substantively. Going by even the most basic definition, people expect leadership to be direct and provide clear vision. This is not happening in the UW (for the duration of this post, this means central admin). In fact, we are modeling for our students, and our state, the very things we identify as being exclusionary, oppressive, and unimaginative. This is heartbreaking.

So, what is the funny thing that happened on the way to the public authority? We made a discovery: a good part of the problem is us. We must fix it. In other words, when we are being told to accept without question that our funding model is broken, it is actually our leadership model that appears broken. Isn’t it clear that a central UW admin doesn’t serve the system well? Do we need a single system, close-to-the-vest President to be our voice in public (and private) forums? Is it actually working against our interests to not have a diversity of voices present at all times? Is this model misrepresenting who we actually are? Instead of a president, would we be better served with empowered chancellors who are directly engaged with their communities and local legislators?

I’m not sure, but here’s where my thinking is about what’s failing:

  • Speaking of inclusion… what kind of leadership model continually opts for consultant expertise over in-house expertise? If, for example, one of the main concerns about the Public Authority model is cost and access, why is President Cross working closely with and paying John Yingling rather than, say, Sara Goldrick Rab? This is malpractice. For those who don’t know, Sara Goldrick Rab is a leading expert, if not THE expert, on college affordability. Her mind and heart are unmatched. She has testified to congress about this issue. She researches the very concerns that legislators are voicing about cost. She has something called data. Yet UW admin doesn’t ask her to even testify to the Joint Finance Committee, or anyone at all. If I were UW President (ha!), the very first thing I would do is mobilize my in-house talent starting with Goldrick-Rab. Phase One: how do we make the entirety of our state the Wisconsin Hope Lab? Phase Two: find next group of smart people who we already employ and have them concentrate on Y. Is this so hard?
  • Our goals with the public authority are regressive. In short, here’s what “we’re” saying we want: a state university system funded by a regressive sales-tax model, one which will lead to yet another cut and increased state divestment. Is that who we want to be? Are we really going to empower the “needs of business” philosophy by shifting to a funding model that further minimizes the contributions of business? Why?
  • Enough with the “town halls” that are merely Q&A and informational. In my decade plus in the UW, the hallmark of central admin has been to highlight purely informational events as “shared governance” or somehow participatory. President Cross will be on my campus this week for such a Q&A. I will not attend, as I will happily be in class doing what I love. But if I weren’t in class, I wouldn’t attend. I don’t want spin, especially from someone who looks down on people like me from behind closed doors. We are the know nothings who “just don’t get it,” who must be placated and/or positioned. This tone is visible in the published emails. I would, however, encourage students, staff, faculty, and other interested parties to go and sit in silence as a symbol for what central truly wishes we would be. We are another rhetorical front and nothing more. So great, here comes another “hearts and minds” talking-points tour. For what? Change the format (which requires a change in ideology). Universities contain one or two smart people. Ask for ideas and be genuine about it. Does this all sound harsh? Well, by their deeds you shall know them, and is there anything at all that has happened that should make us feel valued? Included? (Note: my Chancellor has multiple forums set up for people to submit detailed ideas for how to handle the budget cuts. He genuinely wants those ideas, and responds to them personally. More of this please.)
  • We should, without fear, conduct our business in open meetings, in full public view. For those of us who would bleed for public education, it is soul crushing to learn of your vision via FOI requests. It is soul crushing to know that by the time any bit of information reaches you it is simply an “informational” Point B talking point. Don’t worry, the big boys are “out in front.” I reject that frank discussion must happen in private with a smaller group. Small rooms and closed doors are killing the world. Our rooms should be large, public, and participatory. Our doors should always stand open. They should be a model and an inspiration.
  • One of the reasons our many voices are making a difference is that people, specifically legislators, are getting a fuller picture of the diversity we are. This is impossible with a centralized voice that prefers private conversations. What does the public get now? Detailed, passionate responses like, “We look forward to continuing the discussion….We appreciate the leadership of…..” Never mind, over to you Regent Walsh: “We ought to be talking to each other about this in public, not over the phone and in meetings that are not public….We should hear from the chancellors about the impact of this budget and develop strategies to deal with it.” The sun breaks through the clouds. Again, is that so hard? Let’s state this clearly and forcefully–the reason people have misconceptions about the university is because not enough of what we’re doing is in the open. The more we speak, the more people see how diverse and multifaceted we are, the better the results. Many voices, all the time.
  • That openness, why isn’t it happening? Why do we have the ugly and closed process detailed by the Capital Times? Because this is how central works and this is a methodology President Cross is familiar with. Under President Reilly, in cooperation with Cross, the UW rammed through its flex degree program under the guise of crisis, with the majority of campuses only hearing about it once it was a done deal, i.e., in an informational session. I sat on my campus senate at the time. I was there. Here is a summary of central’s visit to our meeting: “This is happening regardless. We already have it planned and detailed, so your ideas about that are not needed. It’s just a matter of if you want to participate or not.” I specifically asked at that meeting: “How is this already planned out? Why do we need to use, and pay, UW Extension to do what we could easily do better ourselves?” The answer: “Because. Anyway, that’s all been decided.” In short, this is a familiar playbook, and one that worked for Cross when he was Chancellor of the UW Colleges and Extension. Little input. The outcome decided. No large-scale participation. Informational sessions to win hearts and minds. (Over to you, Gerry Canavan.)

So how are you feeling? How am I feeling? Over the years I’ve listened to Wisconsin legislators express deep frustration with UW admin. It turns out I share that frustration. For years I’ve listened to Wisconsin legislators incorrectly identify UW employees, specifically faculty, as being in ideological lock-step with central admin. It turns out we actually have a lot in common (Dear Robin Vos, nobody wants meaningful post-tenure review more than hard-working faculty). But more importantly, we’re a university system; we’re supposed to be different and unique. I am crushed by the reality that our leadership sees so many of us as beneath them, of not worthy of participation, of existing only as rhetorical entities. I don’t know how else to say this: We need new leadership, structurally. The current process, behavior, and philosophy is not worthy of who we are. At the very least, no one can say that the people of the UW are not self-reflective or willing to take their own to task. If only some others would follow suit.


But where are we really? We’re on the sidelines of a power struggle, and that struggle has created opportunities for our voices to be heard. We have republican-controlled governance across the board working through an intra-party conflict.

On one front, our republican university president is aligned with our republican Governor; while on another, a faction of our republican assembly is aligned with a faction of the republican senate, which has led to refreshing alliances with Regents (another front), democrats (yet another front,) and, you know, the actual university (students, staff, faculty, communities, alums, etc.).

Like I said, it’s a long game now. We do better in public, we do better locally. None of that is central.

There’s not much else to report. Everything meaningful that is happening is, of course, occurring outside of blogs like this. It is important to maintain the momentum. Keep contacting legislators. Contact people who have the ear of legislators. Attend meetings where you can provide input rather than merely receive information. Let’s keep doing all of these things.

Last week I was in a meeting with an influential Green Bay CEO and business leader. He is a UWGB graduate and he cares. He’s lobbying for us and his voice is meaningful. Just hearing him say he supports us gave me a look into the coalitions that are forming, often organically. The meeting also gave me some hope, as well as a look into how we might productively change. As my three readers can probably tell, I am an idealist. Which, in our current world, means I don’t understand the reality, practicality, the pressures involved, etc. People like Ray Cross are better than me because they “get it” and have to make the tough decisions and lead us through evolution and change.

It’s funny, in public universities, how many of these tough decisions mean prosperity for the haves, austerity for the have nots. It’s funny how much change and evolution looks exactly the same.

There are many things we are experiencing right now. One of them is a failure of the imagination.

Signing Off

Peace and soul, brothers and sisters. Reading about everyone’s efforts and passions is truly inspiring.




3 thoughts on “UW Struggle: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Public Authority Edition

  1. The next question is…what does UW system actually do for the UW system? At this point I have no idea, other than misrepresent the best interests of faculty, staff, and students.

Comments are closed.