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UW Struggle: The Long, Unnecessary Goodbye

leavingIn a previous post about the real people in these real UW jobs,  I wrote about how many of them are leaving not only the UW, but the state of Wisconsin. Deliberate legislative and ideological malpractice is costing us friends, neighbors, colleagues, public servants, and the type of good and hard-working people everyone should support, regardless of political affiliation.

Below is a message sent yesterday by one of my colleagues at UW-Green Bay. This person is one of the most dedicated and respected people on our campus. As rumors have spread that this person might depart because of the toxic political climate, I have seen more than one student weep; others have expressed outrage that a mentor so important to them would be chased away from a university system that was once truly special. They say, “This can’t be real.”

Over the years, this colleague and I have had many students in common; I have seen, up close, the significant effects this colleague has had on their thinking, reading, writing, curiosity, engagement, confidence, expression, and overall personality.  Frankly, there are students who cannot imagine their educations without this person. I understand why. I cannot imagine working in a space with such a glaring, self-inflicted void.

When talking about “star faculty” leaving the UW, there are many misconceptions. Let me slay a few of those quickly and unequivocally:

“Star faculty” and staff do not congregate solely in Madison; they are abundant throughout the system. They are not rare in the UW; they are plentiful. While schools like Madison, and maybe Milwaukee, have more at their disposal to retain such faculty and staff, the other comprehensive and two-year campuses do not. In many ways, campuses outside of Madison are more exposed because depleted resources neutralize viable counter offers. The poachers know this. They are here now and “plentiful,” the description I used above, may soon no longer apply. Amazing faculty and staff will remain, but the losses are deeply felt and negatively affect our mission and duty to our students.

“Well if they can get more money, they should go!” How naive. To almost everyone I know in the UW, quality of life is far more important than salary, so let’s not pretend this is entirely about economics. Our legislature is actively hostile to, and disparaging of, public employees, and the UW has been front and center of late. There are three other new departures to list from my campus, but this is not the post for that—in all cases, it’s more than money and job security that are the cause; the open hostility of our state’s leadership is a more significant factor than ever. More than one faculty/staff member has said to me, “I just can’t stay where I’m despised. I can’t have my children hear people talk about me this way.” I get it. I have two daughters. It’s a surreal moment when your eight year-old asks, “Why does the Governor hate schools and teachers so much? My parents are teachers.”

So here is the letter. They are a real person’s words, experience, heart, and pain. To hear them is to hurt, especially given how easily all of this could have been avoided via governance that didn’t prioritize grudges and division.

*****

Dear Colleagues,

Most of you know that this email has been a long time coming, but that hasn’t made it any easier to write.  It’s been something of an open secret for a while that I’ve been offered the position of XXXXX at XXXXX University, and I’m writing to let all of you know that I’ve accepted that position.  I will be submitting my letter of resignation from UW-Green Bay later this week, and I’ll be moving to XXXXX in August.

When I came to Green Bay thirteen years ago, I never dreamed I would ever leave.  Wisconsin has been and always will be home to me.  School and jobs have taken me away several times, but I’ve always seemed to end up back here.  I’ve done the math, and it turns out that I’ve lived 34 of my 44 years in this state.  Before the passage of Act 10, there was no way on earth I would ever have considered applying for another job.  This year I applied for jobs mostly to hedge my bets against possible disaster, and as you all know, since I applied, that disaster has arrived.  As a proud graduate of the system’s flagship institution, this was and is the ideal job for me, but it has become very difficult to watch the dismantling of the system and the state that I love, especially since my livelihood depends on them.  Those of you who know me best know how incredibly painful it is for both me and my family to leave, but I simply cannot afford to deprive myself and my family of this opportunity for a brighter future.

Over the past couple months, I’ve winced as people in my position have been described as “defectors.”  That description is appropriate in one sense, since what we are now engaged in is nothing less than a war for the future of public higher education (and particularly the kind we in the humanities and the liberal arts value) in this state.  I hope all of you will realize that although I am leaving the system and the state, I am no defector in that war: I am on no side but yours.  While even a pessimist like me can see that the political climate in Wisconsin is bound to change for the better sometime soon, I’m afraid that some of the changes that are being made to what we all do for a living are irreversible.  The only thing that encourages me is that I know what capable and determined advocates remain among UW faculty to fight to mitigate the damage, all of you among them.

I cannot imagine ever working with a better group of colleagues than I have had the pleasure to work with in my thirteen years at UW-Green Bay.  I admire you all enormously, and I am honored to call all of you both my colleagues and my friends.  Given its size and its incredibly diverse faculty, HUS should never have worked, but in the time I’ve been here it has worked spectacularly.  In fact, it is the most functional department I have ever been in or around.  That is due largely to the almost miraculously collegial atmosphere we’ve managed to establish.  And the unique interdisciplinary education in the humanities that we have managed to provide for our students is something to be proud of and very much worth fighting for.  Even though the prospect of living in Wisconsin helped to entice me, the most important reason I came here was the opportunity to work in such an environment.  I desperately hope you can manage to preserve it in some form.

Although I am leaving, I plan to be a frequent visitor, at least in the coming year.  XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.  I hope I will get a chance to see all of you at some point during those trips.  In the meantime, please know that I wish nothing but the best for all of you and for this institution.  In this case, the cliché that the decision to leave was the hardest one I’ve ever had to make happens to be true.  The way my life has gone, the chances seem pretty good that I’ll be back someday.  I know you’ll all do your best to save this place while I’m gone.

Best,

XXXXX

*****

So there it is. Goodbye to a neighbor, a tax-payer, a homeowner, a consumer, a Wisconsin vacationer, and a wonderful family. Why would we want any of those living in Wisconsin, and specifically Green Bay?

I will also add this: the constant bullying of this state of its own employees is going to separate this family for a year.

My soon-to-be ex-colleague with move on alone for the year to the new job, while the remainder of the family stays so the children can finish school. Think about that. We are talking about a person who has given a significant portion of their life to do outstanding work for this state; a person who just earned the distinguished rank of Full Professor at a pay rate that stands at half of what might be earned somewhere else (our pay is well below Madison’s); a person who wanted to stay here and looked for any reason at all to do so. How did the legislature respond? Your accomplishments mean nothing, and we are now going to make the tenure status you earned meaningless. Have fun spending a year away from your family.

How can Wisconsinites stand by and watch their neighbors be treated so shabbily? My colleague didn’t. As an educator, this person helped Wisconsin citizens, many of them first-generation college students, advance in their lives and move beyond any barriers that held them back. Every student who worked with this person knew they were valued; they were respected.

The state and our central administration could not return the basic courtesy.

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10 Comments

  1. Jim Perry June 28, 2015

    How can Wisconsonites stand by indeed. I don’t know, Chuck. But try as hard as I might, I feel powerless to change things. And that is coming from someone who has never had “impossible” as part of his vocabulary. It seems that the ideology of those in power is antithetical to all that I thought Wisconsin was. Yet when I read comments to articles I see that there are rank and file citizens who also participate in the bashing. And the media has lost some interest in what is happening with education in the state. So what ARE we to do?

  2. G-man June 27, 2015

    I suspect that GOP legislators might read this and nod their heads, “Good riddance.” They think that staff like this fill the heads of students with ideas that make them reject rightwing politics. And they are right, thinking people do tend to find the ideas of conservatives offensive (Good example would be the wailing and gnashing of teeth that have been seen after the recent Supreme Court decision to back gay marriage).

    • Chuck Rybak June 28, 2015 — Post Author

      And Wisconsinites of any political affiliation should reject such closed leadership, all the way down to the level of dog catcher.

  3. Michael Olneck June 27, 2015

    I may comment more extensively later, but I just want to point out that across the board the people teaching at UW campuses are very, very good, and, whether “stars” or not, deeply and positively the lives of their students. Focusing on stars may have political impact (or not), but an exclusive focus on stars will detract from recognizing the full costs of the assault on the UW.

    • Chuck Rybak June 27, 2015 — Post Author

      That’s the point I try to make, and I hope it comes across. That’s what makes (made?) the UW so special–the across-the-board quality. It’s draining right now at campuses throughout the system.

  4. Dr. Yes June 27, 2015

    This will sound harsh, but such is life. People come and people go. The mean governor isn’t forcing him out, he’s leaving because he doesn’t like the political climate. Fine, I get that. But faculty are mobile. I’m sure he is taking an offer at (no offense) a better school than UWGB and for more pay. He’s not falling on his sword here.

    And you may paint me as a right wing troll but I’m not. In fact I’m also a UW-Madison grad and I am someone whose own research is world-recognized and have recently accepted an offer from the UW and I am coming back to Madison. It is not a TT faculty line position (I’m actually giving one of those up at a UWGB-like university) but academic staff. I’m coming back home and despite all the rhetoric UW-Madison is still a world class research instiution, and will continue to be so long as the federal money continues to flow.

    I absolutely loathe the current politics in WI but I understand it – WI has interesting demographics and this kind of thing has happened in the past. I give money to Sanders and Feingold monthly. I am confident that the pendulum will swing back to a more reasonable state, but not before we go through some more contortions. Recent supreme court decisions give me hope. Wisconsin democrats have been spectacularly impotent and continue to fall into all the traps that are laid for them by walker and his handlers.

    So in closing, don’t feel sorry for this guy. Someone good will replace him. He made his decision, and it was not totally selfless. Those of us who truly love Wisconsin (and not just Dane county) will stay and weather the storm and work to make it a better place, not leave because of politics. When yo do that, the assholes have won.

    • Chuck Rybak June 27, 2015 — Post Author

      I think it’s important to return to the main points I’m making—I don’t argue that s/he’s falling on a sword, and I’m not sure why you would assume I would paint you as anything. Furthermore, I don’t, as you indicate, feel sorry for the person professionally (I do personally, as who wants to be away from their family/), nor do I argue about the decision being selfless or selfish. I’ll just restate it: the is a great person and employee who is leaving the state for absolutely ridiculous reasons; as I know the specific details behind this, I know how little was required to get this person to stay, especially after the system itself had invested so much in the person. This was a complete failure at many levels, and while “such as life” might apply, that’s been the whole point of my UW system posts—as an idealist, I reject that even while courting sure disappointment. More importantly, thanks for reading and taking the time; congratulations on your new job, as it must be exciting to be going to Madison. The bookstores alone are enough to make me jealous.

  5. Kristin June 26, 2015

    If this is about who I think it is, this is a humongous loss that can’t be replaced. He is an amazing professor who inspires you to think deeper than you possibly thought you could. If this is the man who taught my Malcolm X class, he is what makes me identify and understand more about the culture and struggles of black men in America. It helps me relate to my 12 year old CASA child, who was called a nigger at school recently, and allows him to open up to me because I can understand how torn he is. This isn’t about English literature, it’s about life and how to make an impact to make the world a better place.

  6. Masked Avenger June 26, 2015

    I, myself, have defected from UW-Madison as of this past January. I was run out of my job and out of the state. Thankfully, I am very lucky and have escaped both Wisconsin and academia for a welcome and well paying career change on the west coast.

    This migration is not limited to academia but to growth and technology industries as well, making a double-blow to the future well-being of the state.

    I will miss my time in Madison, but the electorate of WI will have to live with the consequences of their politics for a long, long time to come. And in that, I have little pity or compassion.

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