UW Struggle: Sage Against the Machine Edition (Updated)

obi-wan-kenobiSometimes those who exist to do nothing but tear other people down can do you a tremendous favor—they can remind everyone of exactly what it is we don’t want to be.

And that’s the case with the Wisconsin Policy “Research” Institute and their recently released op-ed paper (dubbed a “report”) on faculty tenure in Wisconsin. The paper itself, released immediately before the Board of Regents meets to finalize tenure policy, is clearly offered to influence the board, especially those who share a mutual connection with The Bradley Foundation.

My belief, based on what I’ve heard from Regent Behling, is that the WPRI editorial will be ignored, as it should be, if only for its jaw-dropping lack of quality. My children receive birthday party invitations that are better sourced. Though that didn’t stop Wisconsin media from lending credibility to such negative and regressive propaganda, and that is where I think everyone, of all political stripes, can reflect on education, the labor it requires, and what it means to build something as a whole rather than tear things down as score-keeping factions.

Here’s the truth about WPRI’s white light paper, and one can glean this simply by looking at the bibliography: not one research study is cited. Not one. Nothing peer reviewed. They are so desperate for sources that they footnote themselves. The main document referenced is an opinion (!) survey that requires no knowledge of the subject being inquired about (anyone with money can put out a glossy brochure, just ask Americans for Americans Against Americans). The “conclusions” offered in the brochure are on par with “Eat a banana, you’ll feel better.” And so for anyone reading, if you want higher education to result in you, or your children, producing work on the level evidenced by such an editorial, then there is no such thing as “higher” education. (If I read that and were a business that relied on research, I’d be donating to the UW right now.) But if you, like the Board of Regents, are deeply invested in an education system that cultivates even basic research methods, critical thinking, and investigation founded on discovery rather than preconception, then it’s time for you, whether you’re democrat, republican, independent, or Trump-tastic, to support faculty and staff in your higher ed institutions, and use that support as a way to throw your weight behind the quality of life that labor, good wages, job security, and reasonable benefits can offer to every single one of your neighbors and every single citizen of Wisconsin.

But back to tenure for a moment. If you’ve been following the “tenure debate” at all, then there’s one thing that should be sadly and abundantly clear: faculty have no advocate other than themselves.

So while “think” tanks, foundations, group-affiliated editorialists, specific legislators, and segments of the corporate class barrage the airwaves, print, web, and the Capitol lobby with “those darn faculty” arguments, please notice that it is always up to faculty to respond on their own behalf. That’s a lot of machinery aligned against a small, powerless population that bear no responsibility for the state and UW system’s current budget woes. Why is that? A small example: the WPRI’s opinion paper, which is demonstrably without content, received coverage and thus validation here, here, and here. In response, and as is customary now, faculty are relegated to social media (or crappy blogs) and standing up for themselves because there is no other option, hence this editorial by faculty members. The point is clear: the machine speaks loudly and with much financial backing, while faculty have to respond for themselves, often in back channels, when they can carve out enough time on their own dime. I hope that people remember this time and the big lie strategy that’s in full operation—always make faculty the focus, no matter what the real issues are. So, Board of Regents, consider this a plea—please advocate for us; it would mean a lot for our morale.

The “President” of WPRI was also given space to write another editorial (I guess the “report” wasn’t enough), and again he did us the service of illustrating everything that we don’t want to be, anchored on a foundation of division. Given recent polling/approval numbers in the state of Wisconsin, I agree that the Regents represent the people of the state, and they’re sick of intense partisanship, lower wages, cash-strapped schools, and increased poverty. As UW President Ray Cross pointed out in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education , the UW System is vital to Wisconsin’s present and future economy. Given that truth, the logical strategy is to boost support for your labor force rather than attack it as the WPRI suggests. Guess what: I actually have sources! Fact: Wisconsin lags nationally in faculty salaries (for the system as a whole), thus reducing other areas of compensation, such as benefits or job protections, actually costs more than tenure, which is free.

So we have two choices: we can go the evidence-free ideological route which has no end but to celebrate the hardship others might endure, or we can boost each other up. Not only are the overwhelming majority of UW professors excellent professionals and people, they are also a bargain. Almost any professor’s job, when translated into the corporate world, would be split across as many as 5 or 6 different, more expensive positions (teaching, research, HR, community liason, advisor, event coordinator, social media specialist, IT, etc, etc). And every UW professor, staff member, and administrator I know have this in common: they want other people to succeed; that’s the nature of the job. So while the purpose of the WPRI opinion paper is to seek personal gain by pleasing a financial and ideological backer, the UW system and its employees are dedicated to the core mission of improving the lives of the citizens of our state. The Board of Regents knows that, and I look forward to their support in their upcoming meeting.

So let’s move beyond petty tribalism based on division, and let’s make note of a few things that organizations such as WPRI (there are many others) neglect to highlight:

  1. UW employees ARE also the people of Wisconsin.
  2. UW employees ARE taxpayers.
  3. UW employees ARE voters.
  4. UW public service includes, but extends far beyond, economic considerations. Let’s not limit our vision.
  5. UW employees are much more accountable to Wisconsin taxpayers than anyone working in a think tank.
  6. UW employees care about the needs, goals, and dreams of everyone, not just financial backers or special interests.
  7. UW employees are overjoyed when people get hired, not when they are positioned to be fired.
  8. UW employees look at people in terms of what makes them most valuable, not what makes them most expendable.
  9. UW employees view education as related to quality of life that includes economic factors, rather than fetishizing the economic to the exclusion of all other valid concerns.
  10. Try this: take a moment and think about all of the things the UW has done, does, and will do for you, your loved ones, and your communities. Now take a moment and think about all of the things WPRI has done for you.

I was at Lambeau Field the other night for UW-Green Bay’s first “Lambeau Lectures” event. It was an incredible event that highlighted what the UW is truly about, when you really see it up close: attendance was over 500(!); officials from the Packers spoke, including Mark Murphy and a former player; our Chancellor Gary Miller spoke; and there were students, legislators, faculty, staff, community members, business interests, and prospective students in the audience. We talked about the future, and the three featured faculty members who spoke all earned tenure in the UW System. None of them would be there without tenure. That event doesn’t happen without tenure. The promising future described, which focused heavily on the environment and technology, does not happen without tenure. That’s what it means to represent the people of Wisconsin. Representing the people of Wisconsin means, again, building up rather than tearing down; it prioritizes partnership over partisanship.

One of the featured speakers, Professor Ryan Martin, is a psychology professor who gave a presentation on anger. There is much to say about the presentation, but I want to highlight one portion. He asked, “Why don’t we treat people, every day, like we’re running a race?” He was referencing his experience as a runner and how, when running in races, negativity is entirely absent—everyone is supportive and encouraging, whether it be fellow participants or the people lining a roadway and holding signs. (Just like my nine readers. Hi mom! Love you!)

And so I am hopeful about the Board of Regents meeting. I am hopeful that they will recognize that we, the UW, make informed decisions based on research, fact, and experience. We are an institution with a long view. Most of all, I am hopeful that UW faculty will finally find the advocate we are looking for, and that the Regents will recognize and value our hard-work and expertise rather than diminish it. So much depends on it.

In other words, we all look forward to being encouraged, just as if we were running a race.

Update: And right on cue, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which already employs one WPRI columnist (3 different WPRI representatives have written recent anti UW editorials! Three!), gives space to a version of the editorial that ran in the Wisconsin State Journal (I won’t link to it). I mean, it’s almost like this stuff is coordinated or something. So, which of us faculty will have to write a “response” now against the teeth of the machine while simultaneously trying to do very difficult jobs and maintain a semblance of a life?

Again, faculty have no advocate but themselves. I really hope the Regents, come meeting time, remember who faculty really are, what they do, and stands up for us. Hope is in short supply these days.