The Journal Sentinel published a long profile of UW System Ray Cross. I don’t know much about him personally, so I was happy for it. That being said, I’ve thought a lot about some things Cross says in the profile, especially this tidbit:
Cross said he doesn’t ascribe motives or assume ill intent when working with lawmakers.
“I don’t believe there’s a legislator in the Capitol who wants to hurt this institution. Nor do I believe that we understand that. The university often interprets actions as harmful because something’s ‘due to us.'”
Rhetorically, this is typical of Cross, who did the same thing the one time I spoke with him personally. He has no problem ascribing motives, or a single belief, to a massive institution while simultaneously doing gymnastics to reinforce the supposed diversity of another. In doing so, he also refers to the supposedly myopic system he governs as “we” while separating himself from that we—it is him, after all, that stands apart and recognizes this shortcoming.
This is pure fiction.
President Cross has been on the job for one year. He has no idea how “the university” interprets something, and he has no idea whether or not there is some universal sense of entitlement that colors responses. Although the article emphasizes the quality of being “plainspoken,” this is anything but. In fact, it’s deft and complicated and throws us under the bus—statements like this are designed to deny people voice, to diagnose and nullify criticism in a brushstroke. And it is always the employees of the university that are the target, never those who seek to defund the institution or demean those who work for it.
There are various phrases for this strategy, but I’ll stick with one I like: punching below your weight class. It’s a strategy that higher ed upper admin and pundits are fond of.
But, for a moment, let’s take his statement as true—no one wants to harm the institution. Over to you, Mr. Speaker:
“But when I see that the regents at its last meeting came out and said that we’re going to have no change — no changes to tenure, no change to all of these different things — well, then why are we giving you the autonomy to do nothing with it if you’re going to protect the status quo?”
One of these things is not like the other. Tell me more about what I don’t understand.
More importantly, telling those who are significantly hurt by legislative decisions not to ascribe motives to those decisions is indeed plainspoken. It is plainspoken neoliberalism:
These things that are happening are not the result of desires or decisions. They just are. Like the sun. No one is responsible. There is nothing you can do about them, so get over your grief. Pivot. Adapt. Trust me, everyone has good intentions; these things just happen. Now, let me tell you about this efficient, lean, flexible, nimble, ed-tech start up….
Speaking of trust me:
He doesn’t dispute that a lot is happening behind closed doors.
“I much prefer to disagree and argue behind the scenes, but people don’t see that and so they often interpret my behavior as not engaged or not fighting, not arguing,” he said. “I would also argue that much of the university’s advocacy efforts in the past have been hostile, and that’s hurt us with both parties.”
I hope that’s true. I hope he fights fiercely and effectively. But here’s what frustrates me: faculty, staff, students, and supporters are bludgeoned with change rhetoric while the structure of decision making preserves its unchanged hierarchies; we are lectured about accountability while our leadership admits to a preference for working “behind the scenes”; when we express dissatisfaction with these conditions we are scapegoated.
None of this is new. It’s happening in all sectors of society… but my head just got heavy so I better stop.
Look, I love the university because I love my state, my students, my colleagues, and deeply value public education. I would ask leadership and commentators at all levels to not ascribe me motives, or assess my understanding, or determine what I feel entitled to. The UW is made up of thousands upon thousands of unique individuals who demonstrate more diversity than anyone could possibly map. It is our strength. Our internal agreements and conflicts are our strength. Our minds are too many and too important for you to read. More importantly, stop chastising people for caring. It is not a flaw.