UW Struggle: The Toy in the Plastic Bubble

There are no contracts in my bubble
There are no contracts in my bubble

Look, I don’t want to gloat, but if you look at my last post and compare the GB data with that for UW-Milwaukee, even PolitFudge is labeling Governor Walker’s claims about the UW as “Kohl’s Cash Don’t Play Here Homie!” But this is to be expected when the truth is dead. So to my nine readers (Hi mom, I’ll call this weekend! Have fun in the garden!), I didn’t steer you wrong.

But if I could turn serious for a moment, there is a lot going on right now in the UW/No Confidence Resolutions that really has people spooked, and this is evidenced by the incessant wave of press releases, tweet storms, and public statements issued expressly to confirm this blog’s golden rule: faculty [workers] are always to blame.

Now, I have specifically heard from people/constituents that I trust and deeply admire, but even they offer that it is faculty who are hurting the process and damaging relationships. President Ray Cross echoed this is his most recent statement, where he offers the usual rhetorical saltines, including this full sleeve:”The Board of Regents adopted a responsible tenure policy that is comparable to our peers.” (emphasis mine) And he has also offered in informal conversation, in an attempt at humor, that faculty live in a bubble.

So I’ll ask: is breaking a contract responsible? Does expecting contracts to be honored mean you live in a bubble? Check with these guys

To all business owners and CEOs out there, if I extract a service from you for promised compensation, what do you do when I do not provide that compensation? What do you do when my reasoning for not honoring our contract is truly this flimsy: “When I stopped by to see you, your offices seemed a little too nice and you already have a lot of stuff, so I think I’ll common-sense-reform myself into not paying you”? Do you let it slide? Of course not! Even Governor Walker would admit that debt collection, no matter how small the amount, is big business and even the little people must always pay.

And that brings me to the main point here—why has no one talked about this? Why has no media outlet framed this conflict as an issue where contracts for compensation must be honored, especially when the work in question has already been completed? Why are people discussing tenure in terms of whether or not it is deserved as opposed to whether or not it has already been earned? I hope someone does so soon, especially given the recent victories by in-a-bubble-livers that refused to accept morally vacuous definitions of “responsible.”

Put another way: is what’s happening even legal, and when will someone with a larger platform ask this question? Here’s the reality: the first person who earned tenure under its previous definition to lose their job is going to sue; they will be joined by others in the same position, and they will win and it will cost the system/state a lot of money in the process. (Yes, the case will be required to move beyond the deliberately partisan and fraudulent Wisconsin John Doe Supreme Court in order to succeed. And yes, I know that system/state lawyers will say I’m wrong and provide deeply complicated statutory language to prove it. We’ll see.)

But let me return to the issue of the contract and provide a little background for anyone who is not familiar with the minutiae of employment in higher education. I would also hope that, regardless if whether or not you believe in tenure as a concept, you generally believe in “contracts” and hope that they would be honored.

WimpyIt really is this simple: when I was hired, I was not told that if I did all that was required of me that maybe, depending, there might be one of many possible definitions of tenure applied to me, if at all. Nope. You can’t sell people on accepting a job/contract that way. This is the process…

  • When I was hired, I was told to do X in order to achieve Y. (In fact, I have done X twice now.)
  • Doing X is not optional and takes, in most cases, six years. (Think “opportunity cost”)
  • Rephrase: we are going to extract six years of labor from you, and we’ll call that X. We will judge you regularly along the way and if found unsatisfactory, we will not award you the additional compensation of Y. In fact, it may not be until your 6th year that Y is denied you, and good luck rebuilding your career from there. That’s a risk you will have to take for the reward.
  • If you meet all of the requirements for the labor we extract from you for over half a decade, your reward is Y, which is clearly defined here and in state statute. Thank you so much for your hard work and we look forward to so much more.
  • Today in Wisconsin: Thank you so much for years and years of X…um…about that Y…

Got it? People pick up their entire lives to come here, and if they lose their jobs during the tenure process, or because the state breaks their contract with them, you have to pick up your life all over again. Unlike many other jobs, you simply can’t “look for another job” nearby, because there aren’t any; that’s not how higher ed works and is also why all job searches are national/international.

And if you’ll indulge me, let me add a little bit more context to the nature of this contract:

  • I quit a job to accept a position in the UW System. It was a job I loved, in a city I loved, where I had friends I still love but never see. When I weighed the opportunities I had, “Do X for Y,” as then defined as compensation, was more in tune with my values and goals (i.e. to work in public education where I could help traditional-age, non-traditional age , and under-served populations realize their educational dreams, as I once did). In other words, I explicitly closed off one opportunity that I was already thriving in to accept this contract with the UW.
  • When interviewing, more than once, for positions in the UW, I was told this same thing again and again: “Look, we don’t pay as much as other institutions, but benefits and the teaching-learning environment will make up for that. You will work very hard providing X, and you will receive compensation in Y as a result.”
  • Furthermore, I turned down another job in Wisconsin (not in higher ed) to accept the conditions offered by the UW System. That other job, over the duration of these now 13 years, would have paid me more and I cannot retrieve that opportunity.

I completed X for Y as both an employee of the UW Colleges and UW-Green Bay and now President Cross and the Board of Regents have taken away the Y that I rightly earned. In other words, tenure is an earned property right, and our leadership says it is responsible for them to take away my property. Show me a real conservative, anywhere, who thinks people should have earned property taken away by the government. It is the exact opposite of all the respectable conservative thinking that I know.

Like many in the UW, we all have our stories. Being a professor is a demanding, often unique job that requires every ounce of effort, stamina, patience, compassion, and resourcefulness that you have—you will laugh, you will cry, and you well swell with pride when seeing your neighbors, your fellow Wisconsinites, grow and achieve success. In addition to “doing X,” every person now affected by the UW’s broken contract can talk about the sacrifices they made in their lives; all working people, everywhere, can talk about this.

For example, I could talk about commuting two hours each way to work for 6 years—X often requires you work far from home. Wisconsin weather can extend these commutes into a blizzard of eternity, especially when your wife has been hospitalized after a car accident with our daughter in the back seat and our second child still in her belly. But the UW includes the type of friends/colleagues who will wait at the hospital with your family until you arrive.

I could talk about the 80 to 100 work weeks (i.e. the work of multiple jobs) that often took me away from my wife and eventually my children. But I understand that this is common for working people; now if only someone would recognize that professors are indeed working people and taxpayers.

Maybe you have to miss your sister’s overseas wedding ceremony because “doing X” and its endless accountability matrix require you to turn in a 200+ page 3rd-year retention dossier over Christmas break. But hey, I was doing X for Y.

Maybe, after a 90-hour work week, or another 15 hour day, you drive by a political billboard that refers to you as a “spoiled taker.” I drove by that billboard every day.

Maybe 6, and then 10 years of doing X for Y turns out to be an even more intense, pressure-cooker experience than you imagined, heightened by continual public criticism of how worthless you are, and you start to evidence signs of severe mental exhaustion and strain. But in America we don’t quit or show weakness. You will do X for Y. You will do it twice, in fact, just so you don’t have to commute anymore and you’ll have an extra 60 minutes per day with your children.

Tenure can be talked about as many things; one thing we are not talking about tenure as being is a contract and earned compensation. Look, I think pitchers in baseball make way too much money, but, even if I had the power to, I would honor my contract as required, no matter how much I despise guys who maybe play in 35 games a year. It’s a contract. When they perform the work they earn the compensation. Tenured professors have already performed the work. Any changes to tenure policy should, by the common-sense nature of contracts, apply only to future hires (if you can hire them).

Heh. I'll be taking back your compensation now.
Heh. You already did the work?

But again, none of this is really about professors or privilege. Public perception is not public policy, and let me restate what this is all about and why people are suddenly spooked—we are in a budget disaster and more pain is coming. Those in power need scapegoats, especially with a Trumptastic election looming.

Just remember this: nothing a professor says or does results in “damaged relationships” or budget cuts.

Lack of revenue, and an unwillingness to generate revenue, is what results in budget cuts.

President Cross and the Regents know this, which is why they have been lying about what their real intentions are (these are strong words, but these untruths are now a matter of public record). None of this has anything to do with “responsibility” or “common sense” or “our peers.” It has everything to do with wanting to break contracts and deny an unpopular political constituency their earned property right so they can deal with the cuts they know are coming.

This is immoral and bereft of any notions of “sense” or “responsibility.” This is venal. So who is it that lives in a bubble? And you asked people to do X…why?