UW Struggle: What’s Old is New

Rocky4As I sit down to write this quick post, my wife is driving to her unit-level review for the rank of Full Professor. This meeting should be entirely celebratory. The gods and heroes demand it.

As someone who has seen her entire career unfold up-close, I can say with ample support that the UW is lucky to have her, our campus is lucky to have her, and she has worked tirelessly for 15 years to get to this point. Yes, if she worked in a different state at a different campus she would make 20K more per year (which adds up to about 300K in lost revenue and counting) but UW Green Bay is a special place. This is not hyperbole. The students, staff, faculty, and alumni are a treasure. I consider myself lucky to work there as well, not because “I’m just happy to have a job,” but because of the place and spirit and intention that extends all the way back to the university’s founding by a bunch of crazy people with a crazy dream.

She’s probably just driving over the Leo Frigo Bridge right now, and her meeting begins in 10 minutes. And so my message to the Board of Regents, Wisconsin legislators, and UW Central and President Ray Cross is, I wish that she could walk into this moment of tremendous accomplishment and leave with more than self-satisfaction.

You see, what she is going through today is post-tenure review—that’s what the march from Associate to Full is: another lengthy, regular demonstration of superlative accomplishment. So why do the Board of Regents and legislators keep saying that post-tenure review is something we don’t have but desperately need? (Hint: The goal is not really post-tenure review.)

As my wife is surely pulling into the campus parking lot at this point (she tends to run late, or at least cut close, all of her travels—she stole my coffee as she was leaving), let me point to a few other things my wife (and others) have had to do since receiving tenure: I have watched her put hours into gathering documents for merit reviews knowing full well there was no money to reward that merit. Tell me again how we want to reward high performers. Tell me again how good “resume-based” systems of application are: my wife has resume for days, yet, outside of her campus, has been repeatedly told that her most important ability is her ability to be fired. Sound familiar? That’s Wisconsin as a whole now. America as a whole.

So, Board of Regents, President Cross, skeptical legislators… I am not convinced that you care, but let me give you a look into accomplishment as we hit 8:59 and the committee in the meeting room is saying hello, maybe commenting on today’s glum weather, and hopefully drinking coffee from steaming mugs. For all of the false complaints that achieving tenure leads to poor performance, my wife gave birth to both of our children after she was tenured. She only got better at her job. I Rocky3watched her pump breast milk in her office while preparing for class. I watched her win the campus’s most prestigious teaching award on virtually no sleep. I watched her struggle with the realization that minimum 60-hour work weeks take her away from her family. I watched her build a nationally-recognized, student-run arts journal with her own hands while simultaneously providing students with important training for the workforce (ask them; they’ll tell you). I’ve watched her develop new curriculum over and over and over. Her area of specialty is now the most popular emphasis in our department.  Just yesterday, a successful young professional returned to the UWGB campus to give a presentation to our students. Not only was the presentation inspiring and a huge success, but I’ll take a moment to point out that my wife played an instrumental role in this person’s march toward a career. That’s what she does. Every day. That’s what we do. Every day.

(It’s 9:15. In a room somewhere on campus a group of highly accomplished people are celebrating my wife’s accomplishments. None of those people are Regents, a system President, or legislators.)

So stop the circus and the smoke already.  There is no hollower word in our vocabulary today than “advisory.” It is sincerity’s discarded husk. None of this is about quality, about rewarding performance, and insert other platitudes here. It’s about shedding people, bringing them lower, regardless of rank and accomplishment. It’s about the sickening glee taken in the mere idea of shuttering programs and campuses, and when you hear talk of such plans already moving into the open, it’s clear that tenure “reformation” is nothing but deformation. The point is not to reward performance, the point is to ignore it. Again and again—Exceptional merit. No raise. Repeat. Stop pretending that there’s some kind of disagreement about what tenure is, or that this is all about an update that “brings us into line” with peers just as unmoored as we are now. When lost, dead reckonings take skill and courage.

Rocky5It would be nice if my wife (9:22 now—they are surely carrying her around the room in the fashion of a Roman triumph) could accept all of this as more than a personal accomplishment. Shock: Professional accomplishments are supposed to be professional. The state of Wisconsin is her boss, so treat her as a professional and reward her for her work. It would be nice if this peak, arrived at after over 20 years of study, training, and work could be realized in a rank with actual meaning, rather than wiped away in the great leveling that is so obvious to everyone with skin. You can say a lot of things about UW faculty and staff regarding issues like tenure, but I know this—at least we’re honest about it.

My wife would never write something like I’m writing now (9:30: they are feeding her grapes and preparing a hecatomb)—she has too much class. I, however, have no class, so let me point out one big difference between my wife and the assembled group of people who are drafting policy to render her accomplishments meaningless beyond personal satisfaction:

She can do your jobs; you can’t do hers.

9:40. Obviously, the meeting is still going on. They will need until at least noon to cover a mere micron of her body of work. (A bard is plucking strings, moving through the epic lineage.)

President Cross, you should call her in her office and congratulate her later! (Even though this meeting today is only the first step. After all, current post-tenure review exceeds the boundaries of one meeting or layer of approval. If anything, we are an over-determined bunch already.) She would like to hear from you. I like to think the best of people (I know, that’s seems weird), so I’m opening myself to the possibility that all support and encouragement must be kept inside, spoken in private, so as not to antagonize. I get it. In this case, no one else will be listening. Knowing my wife like I do, any praise or words of encouragement will be appreciated.