UW Struggle: Final Update

RockyAusterity’s first requirement is the imagination’s death. The death of ideas and their very possibility. And thus the only line of the current UW “budget” plan I need quote is:

38. Shared governance, general: Specify that, with regard to the responsibilities of the faculty, academic staff, and students of each institution, “subject to” means “subordinate to.”

This has always been about faculty. The level of obsession with faculty, with bringing talented, humble, and hard-working people to heel—the people most responsible for delivering the university’s mission—approaches pathology. Maybe I should post this list again? The one that clearly details how powerless and removed faculty are from being the source of the UW System’s problems? (I could write a whole separate post about how students don’t even seem to exist.)

President Cross, the Board of Regents, and a hostile legislature collaborated to more fully extend Act 10 to the public university system, and they can barely contain their glee. When Regent President Falbo refers to “a new tone” for the UW, he means “shut up faculty.” Falbo, like the legislature, fetishizes authority; their imaginations cannot extend beyond the conceptual framework of “the boss.” Put another way, they cannot imagine democracy. The central purpose of the omnibus bill is to clear the way to fire faculty, at will, with no effort required for cause—our austerian overlords must simply cite program “discountinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.”

And like Wisconsin’s K-12 teachers, who can be fired based solely on budget projections or anticipated shortfalls, the same tactic will be applied to UW faculty. We have already seen cuts based on a budget that does not yet legally exist. Expect projected cuts and shortfalls to provide future justifications for firing faculty. The bill’s language anchors upon economic causes for dismissal, but that’s merely the garb retribution dons these days. Last year I sat in a school board meeting where the members and Superintendent explained: if there is a projected budget shortfall we can fire you, but when the money comes through late in the process we can re-hire you, or someone else, back at a starting salary. These are human beings, talking about other human beings.

And so what’s left for me to update or blog about? What difference has any of it made? Let me take a detour into the personal. Forgive me for this; I’ve always tried not to do that here.

I started in the UW in 2003, working for the UW Colleges. My then-to-be-wife was hired into the UW the previous year, and after a year apart I moved to Wisconsin expecting to teach high school (which I had been doing in Ohio while finishing my dissertation). But I got lucky: my degree plus my tech skills secured my job at UW-Washington County, where I was the first person hired by the UW Colleges with online teaching built into their contract.

cavepointWe live in Green Bay. Washington County is 100 miles away from Green Bay. So for 6 years I commuted just under 2 hours each way. I lost hundreds of family, work, and creative hours sitting in my car. My left arm was deeply sunburned. But I was also deeply happy, and I loved and believed in Wisconsin. I started my career here. My first year in Wisconsin I married my wife (with apparently great symbolism, the ceremony was on a cliff’s edge at Cave Point), we then bought our first and only home, and soon both of our daughters were born. The most important moments of my personal and professional life are Wisconsin. I am from Buffalo, but Wisconsin is my home now.

Pregnant with our second daughter, my wife was in a car accident. Our one-year old was in the car as well. I didn’t know about it. I was teaching classes over 100 miles away. A staff member finally alerted me, and I made yet another bad-weather drive, at great speed up Highway 41, to a Green Bay hospital. I couldn’t reach her or speak with her, or even know what was happening. She was, as required, out of reach and hooked up to a fetal heart monitor. Everything turned out fine, except the blunt realization that I had to change jobs. I couldn’t be that far away.

Again, I got lucky. A job opened at UW-Green Bay in my fields of expertise. For my family, I gave up my hard-earned tenure and accepted the job. It took me two weeks to decide, as I’d be giving up tenure (!) in the climate of a newly passed Act 10. Then I earned tenure again. I’ve earned tenure in the UW System twice. I am aware of luck; I am aware of fortune and circumstance; but I’m also aware that, post-luck, I worked and worked and worked and earned my rank. In my first seven years I worked no less than 80 hours a week with a 4/4 teaching load (which was 1/4 of my overall appointment responsibility). I have dedicated my entire professional life to helping people make their lives better. Nothing makes me happier than when my students are hired into the workforce at salaries that exceed my own. Nothing makes me happier than a returning student rediscovering a passion for writing that also leads to their receiving a promotion and a raise. As a professional and state employee, I work and live and breathe for others. Yet, last night my wife and I found ourselves asking, “Why does this state hate us so much? What have we done wrong?”

And that’s my question for President Cross, who upon securing expanded authority for himself and the Board of Regents, is moving swiftly to curtail the job security of UW employees: why do you have such disdain for what people have worked tirelessly to earn?

And for the legislature that barks incessantly about work, about earning your way, about not “freeloading”: why do you dismiss my work and accomplishment? Why look at a class of people who do so much right as if they are always what is wrong? I guess these questions border on rhetorical.

So again to President Cross, legislators, Regents, and the people reveling in an imagined comeuppance: how are teachers supposed to face students and encourage them to work toward goals and achievements? Are we to lie and say the work will pay off when the fruits of our own labor are constantly derided, devalued, and destroyed? That question is not rhetorical. What should we tell students to work toward? Maybe we should listen to Regent Falbo and simply offer, “Find your bosses. They’ll tell you what you’re worth.”

I feel this needs repeating, and consider this portion an open letter: President Cross, Michael Falbo, Alberta Darling, Robin Vos, other republican legislators: why do I, and people like me, not deserve what we earned? Why is our work not valuable? Why did the state and the UW ask us to go through this grueling process only to back out on its end of the commitment? It is so contrary to what you offer in public statements and speeches.

Let me put this another way, and again, forgive me for the personal tone and reference: tenure is not a perk for me. I did not erroneously stumble into tenure. It was not “awarded.” I earned it. Twice. But more importantly, it is a symbol of my work, skill, and accomplishment. In my professional life, tenure is a source of pride not because I get to sleep on a state yacht, but because it signifies nearly two decades of my life: the study, training, job searches, students and their triumphs, individual and book publications, teaching awards, community work, institutional work, etc. Twenty years of my life and dedication, wiped away with a grudge and a brushstroke. I’m demoralized and, like many of us, wondering, “What was all the work for?” In short, the only people who have done their jobs, who lived up to the promise of the UW, are faculty and staff. This is how we are rewarded. President Cross has said he and the Regents will “reinstitute” tenure. Maybe in name, but not in any form that fulfills the promise and commitments made to us upon being hired (see item #39 in the bill). This is betrayal and it hurts. It has taken its toll on me, my mental health, my ability to focus on my job, my relationships. Have I failed in some way? President Cross, Robin Vos, Alberta Darling, I sincerely ask, where did I go wrong?

So this is it. I have nothing else to say. I don’t know if these blogs mean anything. I have two huge projects calling my name that I have one chance to finish; this is the only chance I’ll ever have so I need to dig in.

If you’re anyone who has taken a moment from your life to read anything I’ve written, thank you for collaborating with me. It means the world. I’ve recently come upon the realization that, in both my personal and professional life, the achievements I’m most proud of are collaborative. My life as a husband, a father, a teacher, an artist, a hippy blogger, are all heart-sustaining collaborations, and these collaborations require imagination, creativity, and sacrifice. But you all know this. Our state, and our UW leadership, have abandoned imagination as a resource.

So I’ll leave with this, for all of my colleagues and compatriots in the UW—faculty, staff, students, two deans I can think of—I am so honored to be one of you. Maybe everyone has a little bit of impostor syndrome, and not a day goes by that my breath is not taken away by the sheer amount of intelligence, dedication, self-sacrifice, backbone, and curiosity that surrounds me. Such goodness, such people, here in a darkening Wisconsin, is a blessing.

I’ve carried a William Stafford poem with me for years. It is never far for my mind. I have read this poem as a prayer in a church. I give this poem to students at the end of semesters and they contact me years later quoting lines. This is a poem of sunlight, resolve, and good people.

That concludes our updates. Thanks for listening. Be strong and think well of what you’ve done and will continue to do. You deserve praise.


You Reading This, Be Ready

            by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life—

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?




15 thoughts on “UW Struggle: Final Update

  1. The rest of the academic nation is watching Wisconsin in horror. It’s no comfort but we hear you and wish you well. Beautifully written post.

    I think the thing that gets me the most is your question about what you’re supposed to tell your students about their own aspirations. That is gut wrenching.

  2. Your blog is powerful! Thank you for sharing you thoughts and feelings, and thank you for everything you are doing as a faculty member at what was once one of the greatest research universities in the world.

    Debra Bragg
    Endowed Prof, Higher Ed
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  3. I’m an English Education major who got off the academic track and became a technical writer and editor. It sounds to me that in your state the wrong people are reading ATLAS SHRUGGED and putting its lessons to work to terrorize their underlings. We all can’t be football coaches. Who will teach their children if these trolls drive all the professors out of the field? Any ideas??

  4. Thank you for this. You speak for many people. This blog has been heard, read, appreciated.

  5. I am done. Twenty-six years in the UW system wiped away in one stroke. All of the 75 hour work weeks as a young professor, for nothing. All of the nights I put my babies to sleep and returned to word… disregarded. You have won, Robin Vos, Scott Walker, and your followers. I only pray that you live long enough to one day realize what you have done.

  6. I was wiping away tears as I read this blog. My heart goes out to all of the people in our State who are robbed of their peace of mind, financial security, public services and constitutional rights by our ALEC government. Please try to keep fighting the good fight. I know it’s hard but history shows us that we must stand up for what we beleive in. I’m so sorry for the pain you are going through. We shall overcome…someday…..

  7. Thank you for this. I am a professor in the UW system as well (not in the language arts, but my father was an English Professor) and this sums up my feelings succinctly. Having spent time in the Midwest (Kansas specifically) the Stafford poem hits home is a favorite of several friends of mine. Under some circumstances, poetry may have no power, but under others, it is the only form of revolution. Thank you. Let’s keep fighting the good fight despite the rampant hatred this state appears to have for people who know things. Best to you and yours.

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