We live in a leadership void. And while it is tempting to wax furious on larger levels (the US Senate just voted on whether or not something is “real”), I’ll keep my focus on our capsizing state and its university system.
What is there to say about this drama? Is it a comedy? A tragedy? I’m more inclined to interpret it as performance art about irony. For example, it is amazing to watch people participate in an entirely linguistic process while simultaneously questioning the value of the humanities. It is amazing to watch “Americans for Freedom(!) and Up-pulled Bootstraps” fetishize authority to the point that words like “boss” and “CEO” feel like catalysts for arousal.
Enter our hero and savior: “flexibility.” As we know, “flexibility” is code for cutting pay, benefits, and jobs. Speaking of performance art…
Here’s a question I ask myself every day: why would anyone sitting in our legislature listen to Ray Cross? This is not a criticism of Cross (he could be Ronald Reagan), but ultimately a question about meaningful and representational organizational structure. What can antagonistic legislators possibly be thinking when meeting with President Cross beyond, “Oh great, here’s the guy begging for money. Again. Here’s Mr. Reasonable. This is so boring. What can we do for fun and liven this up? Make him squirm!”
This is how I imagine discussions between UW leadership and legislators, and the key here is the discussion’s depth:
Here are some choice quotes from Cross’s recent Q&A at UW-Whitewater:
- On tenure and promotion: “The current concern by legislators at the Capitol focus on this single issue — you should not have a guaranteed job for the life; that is the sound bit logic that is being played,” he said. “Let’s break that down. When you tell the legislators that they really don’t have it like that, they do not see that. They ask, ‘Well, how many tenured faculty have been let go?’ The answer is very few. Then you explain the process of securing tenure, how you actually get there and the probation process. There has been all kinds of scrutiny and screening before tenure is awarded.” (Note: none of this has anything to do with the budget shortfall, which is the fault of legislators who, you know, make the budgets. This is a non-monetary issue. Why is this even a point of discussion? Don’t answer that….)
- On “job creators” fetishizing the ability to fire people: “Cross said some legislators understand the process, yet still say that some faculty should be dismissed due to performance.” (Note: why are faculty, again, the front-and-center topic of discussion for a budget shortfall and cut they have nothing to do with? Why aren’t the budget makers front and center? Leadership! I will post this for the 5th time.)
- On legislators incessant fetishizing of authority and submissive workers: ““Number one is that ‘employees should not get to pick their boss,’” he said. “They believe the policy we have for hiring chancellors or executives, which requires a majority of the search committee be composed of faculty, is offensive. That is easy to fix. That is a board policy, not a statute.” (Think about this for a moment, and take note parents and students: your education is meant to teach you submission, also freedom(!). In short, why does the UW promote such an “offensive” democratic system?)
- On the fog of war that many legislators exist in: ““Some legislators say that faculty and student input needs to be advisory,” Cross said. “I open to 36.09 and say ‘show me where it is not advisory — because it is advisory.’ I think there is a lack of understanding about what shared governance is and where it needs to go. Part of our job is to help legislators understand that.” (Cross states the reality: shared governance has always been a performance more akin to playing house. Also, we need to prioritize businesses, which often pay no state taxes, over students, who pay both state taxes and tuition. Check.)
Doesn’t all of this seem so pointless? Is there anything above that speaks to education, aspirations, access, or opportunity? Can you remember the last time anyone asked or cared about what students want? The items above dominate the write-up of the Q&A. None of them are budget related. Zero. Is the cut about a real shortfall or about the UW’s “behavior”? It can’t be both. We live in a leadership vacuum where governance is by petty grudge. Let us ask ourselves a few questions:
- What do you say to a leader/legislator who says we have too many campuses, too many departments, too many everything, while that same person spent most of the last year arguing that we needed a third Walmart inside a 10-mile radius in sprawling Green Bay?
- How do you engage leaders/legislators who embrace the imaginary vision that faculty have power in the contemporary, corporatized university? How do you talk about education in the face of frothing misconception? To an audience that offers nothing beyond, “But the faculty! Why can’t we fire them or at least micromanage them to death because…leadership! Accountability!”
- How to you dispel the myth of “We need to do a better job of communicating who we are” when the root of the word “university” should successfully convey the impossibility of such a definition. I’ve worked in the UW for 12 years; even now I’d consider my understanding of “what we do” to be minimal. There is so much going on at one time on any given campus, let alone in the system as a whole, that any definition is simplistic and a disservice. Furthermore, why emphasize the need for a single person to be able to “understand the system.” Good luck, and again, I say that as an insider without such an understanding. Knowledge is an essential economy, whether that economy is financial, cultural, local, global, personal, emotional, artistic, educational, etc.
- How do you reach a leader/legislator who boasts of protecting the middle class from tuition hikes while simultaneously voting for Act 10, Right to Work, and is currently pushing the repeal of prevailing wage laws?
- How do you expect leadership to function in the present when legislators refer to the guiding wisdom and data-driven “bad taste in the mouth” rule from a previous nontroversy?
- How do you persuade anyone who views knowledge entirely as a vocational subset of work and consumerism? We are broadcasting to students and parents of students everywhere, “Come to us for knowledge so you can be silenced under the all-important boss.” Great. Exactly what I want for my daughters.
- How do we inhabit a space where traditional and rigid top-down leadership bludgeons their constituents with talk of “change,” “flexibility,” and “being open to new ideas”? (That’s irony over there in the coffin, stake through the heart.)
- What do you say to leadership that rambles on about quality while that very quality is running out of the door?
- What do you say to campus leadership that offers quotes from David Brooks and Thomas Friedman in place of ideas anchored in our real, lived experience? What do you say to this leadership that prioritizes external ideas over internal talent and resources?
- What kind of leadership anchors its decisions on the latest Rebecca Blank quote, or the latest faculty comment? “Oh, we were concerned about education in Wisconsin, but oh snap, forget it now, Rebecca Blank said something!” Good lord.
- Lastly, why do we pretend that a leader/system president can effectively speak with this leading, ideological class when those legislators have no incentive to listen? This is not about Ray Cross—it is independent of the person who holds that position—but in what scenario is this model even remotely effective rhetorically?
This is what a leadership vacuum sounds like. Who knew there could be so much noise in a vacuum?
Throughout this year, a year filled with despair, I’ve learned and been reminded of some important things that I believe connect to leadership.
First, the students are the true owners of this system because they provide the largest portion of its funding via tuition dollars. They are also silenced in proportion to their contribution, and it’s no wonder that some legislators are upset that students would want a say in the enterprise they significantly fund. Again, students are the majority stakeholder in an organization that provides them with the least power. Can students sue for control of the system? They deserve it. On my campus I’ve watched (from a distance, lest I be scolded and/or fired) students bravely organize, protest, and communicate with legislators in a way that I can confidently say puts Central’s leadership to shame. These students, with so much at stake, have decided to mobilize, to “fight,” with their intelligence and passion. Furthermore, when they meet face-to-face with legislators they stand there as something that UW central never does: voters. In that moment, legislators can’t simply roll their eyes without some risk. Our system is on the verge of not deserving the wonderful students we serve.
Second, though Ray Cross likes to say “How do you think they got that way?” when referencing legislators who want to help the UW, my belief is that the communication from students, parents, community leaders, business leaders, staff, and faculty have had far more of an influence on this process than given credit for. Though dispersed and collaborative, it sure looks a lot like real leadership. And I hope that with a Presidential election on the way, the UW remains a state-level ballot-box issue regardless of our bleak budget outcome. All of these efforts must not be wasted, and must make their way into the language of upcoming campaigns for office. Dear students, parents of students, staff, faculty, alumni… consider running.
I’ve talked around the elephant in the room: our Governor is the model for our leadership vacuum. No decision is about Wisconsin or its citizens anymore. We know this. We are a laboratory for hourly polling services. The UW, flexibilities, efficiencies, nimbleness, the 21st century global something or other… all of these things are people. Until we have leaders who acknowledge people as people, every meeting, town hall, press release, etc, is nothing but performance.
The leadership vacuum presents itself when all discussion is about everything but the problem: faculty…tenure…governance…bad taste in the mouth…cash reserves. The problem is not the UW. The problem is the inadequate budget and the architects of our current budget shortfall. Literally folks, if we prize accountability so much, then hold the legislature accountable for the budget they created and voted for. There is nothing else to talk about. It’s hard to control this outside of our own organization, so I wish UW leadership would embrace this reality instead of indulging the fiction that somehow the composition of search committees is important right now.
God, how long can I ramble on about all of this non-talk about non-issues? The question should not be “How do we do better next time?” Going forward, our many questions should begin with, “How can we change the UW’s leadership model to one where our voices actually have meaning?”