Earlier this week, UW System President Ray Cross gave an interview on CW 14 with Robert Hornacek (A UW–Green Bay graduate. Go Phoenix!). Overall, I thought the interview was very good. Of course, interviews are not policy and don’t create change, but in terms of the overall tone, especially when discussing the value of tenure, there was nothing I could complain about (a miracle, you say!). But again… this is not actual policy.
Still, there were two or three stand-out moments in this discussion that illustrate just how terrible we are at discussing the professors who work in the UW System, and it betrays two things: first, how the rhetorical strategies of “divide and conquer” have worked to the point where they have entered our linguistic consciousness as reality, and second, I wonder if President Cross and Mr. Hornacek truly know what kind of people they refer to when they say “professors.” Just in case they do not—and I didn’t see enough evidence of this—let me step in and help a little.
The full interview is included above, but skip ahead to the 4:28 mark, where Mr. Hornacek asks the following, verbatim:
There are also a lot of issues around the edges of this budget cut—things like tenure, things like shared governance questions—let’s just…the question about tenure is where does that stand today? And I know that there are some people out there who scratch their heads and say, why does that make sense in this day and age, why should the professor have that much job security when the taxpayers don’t? (emphasis mine)
This happens all the time and it’s not even subtle anymore—here, again, we have the insinuation that professors are somehow a constituency that is separate from the taxpayer. Of course, this is the moment I’d like President Cross to step in and say, “Let me remind you that professors, and all UW employees for that matter, are taxpayers. So your question doesn’t make sense, because there are taxpayers with this type of job security.” Ah, but it’s so easy for me to watch the video and editorialize after the fact about what someone should say in the moment. That said, I can offer advice for the future, and will take the opportunity do so with this small list of very big letters:
- PROFESSORS ARE TAXPAYERS!
- PROFESSORS PAY TAXES! (Just in case item one didn’t make sense)
- I HAVE NEVER RECEIVED A NOTICE FROM THE FEDERAL AND STATE GOVERNMENT THAT READS: “IF YOU WEREN’T A PROFESSOR, HERE ARE THE TAXES YOU WOULD HAVE PAID. LUCKY YOU!”
- TAXPAYERS AND PROFESSORS ARE NOT ANTONYMS; THEY ARE SYNONYMS!
Thanks for listening. So, President Cross and Mr. Hornacek, if you have the chance to field/ask such a question again, please try to emphasize this point. It’s really important to all of us (especially professors because of the baggage the word “professor” now carries) to be recognized as, you know, regular members of the community who pay for roads, schools, services, the university, and taxes toward our own salaries. My kids go to a public school that I am proud to pay taxes for. They are surrounded by teachers and staff that I am proud to support with my tax dollars, so don’t talk about me (or let someone talk about me) like I do not contribute or matter as much as someone else. Thank you.
Moving along to another issue of perception… If you skip ahead to the 10:50 mark, Mr. Hornacek asks President Cross if the UW System itself is largely to blame for the declining public perception of the university. President Cross’s answer here startled me, and maybe this just shows how disconnected I am, but it leads me to question how much, outside of Madison, he really knows and understands about the people who work for him. Or maybe this is just a rhetorical ingratiation, I don’t know. In his response, President Cross said, among other things:
I think in some ways we come across…and it’s inherent in this type of job…we come across as arrogant and disconnected, not connected to the average person, and that shouldn’t be the case. The more educated one is, the more humble they should be because they realize how little they really know…I think it’s important that the university be connected to the average person, not be perceived as an elitist living in an ivory tower. (emphasis mine)
The rest of the interview includes references to the “average person,” which is set in opposition to the university employee (heavily implying “the professor”). Again, we can see divide and conquer scoring a victory in our own words and language. When these linguistic oppositions fortify themselves so easily in your speech (whether in question or in answer), you create the reality. That reality is inaccurate–there is nothing inherent in this job that creates arrogance. Let me provide another list for future reference… and I will base this on my personal experience, especially at UWGB.
The main point: Professors are average people, staff are average people, and given the pay at UWGB and a host of other campuses throughout the system, one could argue we are below average. (Wink, wink) If you look hard enough, you might, just maybe, see the following out there in the wild:
- Professors live in actual houses and apartments. They are often in debt to pay for such things. You won’t believe this… but I’m a professor and I have a mortgage! Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.
- UW employees roam the aisles of grocery stores.
- UW employees have car payments, don’t have secret full-service UW gas stations, and actually drive themselves places.
- UW employees drink beer, cut grass, rake leaves, go to PTA meetings, volunteer, shovel snow, cry, sing songs, dance, get cancer, eat cheese curds, have pets, owe money on credit cards, love their families, birth kids in hospitals, watch the Packers, shovel more snow, experience road rage, wonder when road construction will finally freaking end, watch tv, laugh, own grills, cook on said grills, hunt, fish, hike, get bitten by mosquitoes, love lake Michigan, love Wisconsin, pay taxes, get stuck in traffic (repeatedly), get married, attend funerals, want good things for other people, have neighbors, call plumbers, etc.
The UW is connected to the average person because the majority of us are average people (see the list above). Caring about knowledge does not separate one from the “average person.” And let me make this one point related to President Cross’s comments about humility. The overwhelming majority of UW employees I know—and I can definitively say this about the campus where I work—are incredibly and admirably humble. (I know people on other campuses can say the same.) Their humility is evidenced by the fact of their public service and the fact that they constantly put others before themselves. Even in the face of withering criticism and scapegoating, the UW professors and employees I know put their feet on the floor every day and go to work to help make a difference in the lives of their neighbors and fellow citizens. Even in this climate of scorn they do that work with joy. If that’s not humble, I don’t know what is.
Again, I’m picking at an interview after the fact. Listen to the whole thing—in my view, it is a good interview. I was happy to listen to it. Thank you, Mr. Hornacek and President Cross for participating in it. But going forward, whether you are asking/being asked questions, try to ensure your language reflects these few simple truths: UW professors are taxpayers; UW employees are “average people” (which to me means they are spectacular and inspiring, like most “average people”); and to be a public servant, even in the fields of knowledge and education, moves one closer to humility, not further away from it.
I had initially planned to write a blog about the campus shooting in Oregon, and how students, educators, and campuses are now habitual targets for such massacres (as are movie theaters, K-12 settings, and churches). To be a teacher/staff member and student in America is to put your life at risk. I was going to write about the concept of the word “President,” and whether or not President Cross should publicly call on our state legislature to enact (or restore) sensible gun laws that would help to protect his employees and UW students, who are now targets for such violence for no other reason that they exist and congregate in a specific location. What could it hurt to make such a call? Would it be detrimental to future budgets?
Obviously, I didn’t write that post. Here’s what I’ll settle for—just emphasize to people that we pay taxes and live in communities and are neighbors. Don’t set us in opposition to what we actually are.