Lessons from the UW-Superior “Halloween Axe” One Year Later

Just over one year ago, everything changed for me and many others in the community of Superior, Wisconsin. Without faculty, student, or staff input, three administrators were able to eliminate and threaten a full one-third of the academic programming at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, including most of the liberal arts in which it offered majors and most of the critical disciplines on campus. A few months later, an eerily similar list of program eliminations was announced at UW-Stevens Point. A newer, more final version of these cuts was announced yesterday. The Stevens Point proposal will be the first direct implementation of UW administrators’ new power to fire tenured faculty without declaring financial exigency.

Perhaps at the end of one year of mourning UWS, it’s time to move on to the next i see human but no humanitytragedy. After all, we were not the first victims of austerity measures in higher ed, and unfortunately we won’t be the last. Plus it’s over. The drastic cuts at UWS, along with the clumsy and deeply damaging restructuring of the entire 2-year college system in Wisconsin, have already happened. And Wisconsin has even finally ousted Governor Scott Walker in favor Tony Evers who was the lone voice of opposition while on the UW Board of Regents. But on this one year anniversary, it also seems useful to ask what can learn? How do we pick up the pieces and survive, both as local communities and within the more decentralized community of academia? A few things are for certain: the devastation of higher ed is not confined to Wisconsin, and the election of Tony Evers won’t be enough to roll back the damage done to the once great system of public higher education in the land of milk and honey.

In personal terms, the last year has been one of massive upheaval on both a private and professional level. I was driven out of my tenure track job in my fourth year which in turn meant geographic relocation. I sold my first house shortly after buying it, and started over in a new city, yet again. I was not alone in this. As I began to speak out publicly against the unethical and unconscionable decisions and public statements made by the university’s top administrators, I did not anticipate the level of absurd and petty harassment that I faced throughout the year for which there was no formal remedy.

The more that I was harassed, along with a few others who were also singled out, the more that a climate of fear seemed to prevail around me. Much of what happened to me was risky to speak about in writing or online. Let this be lesson #1 for others: open the lines of communication often and early between departments and among faculty, staff, and students, so that it is harder to single people out. Make time and spaces for in person meetings. Check in with people regularly who are on the forefront. Be aware that distancing yourself from people makes it easier for them (or you) to become targets for administration. Pay for personal memberships to the AAUP and/or a labor union (regardless of the status of legal bargaining rights) because their experience and assistance is invaluable in this situation.

My situation culminated at the end of the year when I should have been able to focus on supporting anxious seniors with their thesis presentations and nervous first year students with finishing classes. I was actually accused of committing “fraud” against the university. For what? I don’t know. How was the case resolved? I don’t know. I can only assume I was cleared because I was never reprimanded in any way. I was summoned to a meeting (at a time I was unavailable), I was not allowed to bring a witness, I was told I could not be given any information about the accusation in advance, and then I was informed that I had failed to comply. When I requested a copy of the report I was told it did not exist because it was submitted online. With some anxiety, I packed up the most important things in my office and took them home in case the university continued to ignore any semblance of due process and made a decision to suddenly terminate my employment. I tried to thread the fine line of my legal obligations to a workplace that clearly did not feel the need to observe basic legal obligations to its employees. Lesson #2: the university will not do the right thing (but you will survive somehow anyway). 

This story probably sounds extreme as you read it, and you may be thinking “that could never happen at my university.” But people never seem to think it’s going to happen to them, against all the evidence. Let that be lesson #3 from the Halloween Axe: it can happen to you, and you should already be organized to stop it. A great example of this problem is UWS’ own Dean Yohnk, the Dean of Academic Affairs at UWS who sold himself to UWS as a liberal arts champion less than 2 years earlier and then participated in these cuts. Yohnk managed to somehow parachute out of UWS and into UW-River Falls still as an advocate of the liberal arts. This is major head in the sand thinking on both sides. According to Yohnk, he had no part in the cuts and wanted to get away from that environment. So you go to another school in the UW system, still headed by Ray Cross and the Board of Regents? Good luck with that. And what is the hiring committee at River Falls thinking to accept someone who just lit a match and ran from the next door neighbor’s house? Lesson #4: be informed about the news in higher ed so you know what campus environment someone is coming from and you are prepared to understand their role in it when they arrive on your campus. And lesson #5: wishful thinking is dangerous. Don’t do it. Dramatic neoliberal austerity measures can happen at your university and they will, unless you organize against them. Let’s throw in lesson #6 here: elites network across campuses so we should too.

Actually, another thing to learn from what happened at UWS is lesson #7: these cuts have probably already started at your university or in your state. They don’t just fall out of the sky. They are ideological and they are part of a much longer game plan that takes many years to come to fruition. Look at all the planks in the plan to kill the Wisconsin Idea that needed to be laid before the final blow could be dealt to UW-Superior:

 

  • Act 10 eliminating collective bargaining rights for public workers;
  • weakening and effectively eliminating tenure protections throughout the state so that faculty throughout the university can be fired regardless of tenure without formally declaring financial exigency (not to mention the chilling effect);
  • changes to the hiring of chancellors and hiring committees (these have the effect of chilling efforts to call for resignation of current chancellor(s) because faculty are afraid that whoever is hired next will be worse, as they are assured of having no voice in the process);
  • dramatic changes to Chapter 36 and essentially eliminating the role of faculty in governance of the university;
  • free speech rules implemented via the legislature severely limiting the possibility of student protest on campus;
  • implementation of faculty post tenure review.

The cuts at UWS were only possible after all of this had been implemented in addition to devastating system wide budget cuts over a period of six years. There are many lessons to be drawn from this fact, but one important one for me is lesson #8: we have to somehow fight every austerity measure, even if it’s a losing battle. Don’t hand over an inch, because we are really always fighting the next battle. If we accept one measure without comment or struggle (as we did with many of these, knowing the Regents, legislators, administrators and often public were aligned against us), the right wing ideologues hell-bent on eliminating higher education will know that we aren’t organized to fight the next austerity measure. During my time in Wisconsin, I watched the implementation of several of these rules go on without comment or struggle from faculty who little imagined how they would be impacted later. And the result was that when the Halloween Axe fell, most of the faculty didn’t really understand what had happened to their tenure in Wisconsin, or what had happened to shared governance, or how would it actually affect them and not just their least favorite colleague. They knew enough to be scared but not enough to know what their rights still were or on what grounds we could fight. There was just too much catching up to do. Learn from our mistakes and find out what the reality is on your campus before there is a crisis. And inform and organize your colleagues now.

There are so many more things I learned in the last year as an academic, as an organizer, and as a community member of Superior than I can share in a single essay. I’m still mourning UWS and I’m honestly pessimistic about the long-term future for the community of Superior and northern Wisconsin more generally because something beautiful has in fact been lost. But I also know that marginalized communities can and do find innovative ways to survive and even, within pockets, thrive. Long term stability and permanence are myths that should never be counted on, especially within the dual realities of capitalism and climate change. While I mourn UWS, and while I mourn the broader closure of access to the public university to so many, I also look toward free schools, community run schools, and other models of more liberatory education. The public university has never been the only model of education so I choose to finish here with lesson #9: our dreams should always be too big for their institutions.

Everything for Everyone!

Art by Ali Cat. Leeds at Entangled Roots Press licensed Under Creative Commons License “CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.”

Happy Birthday to Me

This year I decided to step out of my comfort zone and ask everyone for a big gift. I will admit that I was inspired by Facebook’s prompt to start a fundraiser, but as an incorrigible nonconformist, I did not start a fundraiser. Instead, I asked all of my FB friends to engage in some form of social change action in my honor.

Here were the rules:

  1. Choose a form of social change/resistance to participate in before Oct 31.
  2. The idea is to “take one step up” from wherever your current level of political engagement is, so actions that count should be something that you would not otherwise do. (Ex.: Voting is a good action if you were not planning on voting and don’t usually vote, but not a very good gift if you were already gonna do that. The same goes for donating money.)
  3. Post what you did as a comment on this thread, or if you prefer send me an email about it.

It was a big ask, but I received some truly humbling birthday gifts:

  • I have joined Alliance at UWS to help advocate and learn more about my LGBTQ+ friends.
  • I will attend my first Witness for Peace Midwest board meeting in November and, if all goes well, lead my first delegation in March.
  • Sent out over 100 emails to “BFs” in Duluth and sent in a Letter to the Editor to the Duluth News Tribune to campaign for Keith Ellison
  • And another for Keith: just signed up to do GOTV for the Keith Ellison campaign
  • Last night, I spoke publicly at City Council about the economic degradation and impact thereof related to NW Jacksonville.
  • Raised funds and did a walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
  • I’m speaking at a labor and disability rights event, I’ll step it up in your name! Just know I get in the most trouble when I ask, what would Meghan do? And I ask this question often!
  • Researched and donated to Trans Women of Color Collective.
  • I’m embarrassed this was outside my comfort zone, but I went to a showing of a film “Doctrine of Discovery: the domination code” by Steven Newcomb at a local community center and signed up to receive emails on how to help spread the message. It has to do with the federal governments (and European) policy of domination of indigenous peoples and the religious ideologies they rely upon to justify their actions. I truthfully would most likely not have gone if you hadn’t made your birthday request! It was important for me to see.
  • Recent traumatic events in my family and seeing rape culture play out on the national stage have been very triggering of my own trauma of when I was raped at 17. And for my daughter staring down similar demons, and for every other person who has survived sexual assault, abuse, or rape – I am going to stop running. I’m going turn around and tell my 17 yr old self everything I’ve been telling my daughter. And I’m going to take every bit of power back that the fear has held over me and use it to file a police report and name him. The statute of limitations expired years ago, I doubt he’ll ever know I reported as there’s not potential for charges so I don’t think they would even do an investigation. So that is how I’m taking your challenge of one step up. I’m going to name him and file a police report.
  • I’m going to teach Constitutional Law through Duluth Community Ed, for free, so that people with money are not the only people who understand the constitution, in addition to my work on criminal justice reform (for example Warrant Resolution Day to keep people out of jail)
  • I recently started helping a lawyer friend translate documents from Spanish for immigration cases she works on.
  • Engaged in deep discussion with someone pushing a political candidate I don’t care for.

My idea was that we live in an individualist society and political action is, well, hard. We could all use a little bit of a push and also some mutual support to engage more in our communities, to do something we’ve been meaning to do, and to know that what we’re doing really counts for something. I wanted to create another little web of solidarity and light in this world which can seem so dark. I hope that others will be inspired by these ideas and actions whether you are a seasoned community activist or just getting out there or something in between, because as one of my friends said, we could all use a little inspiration.

Fearless by Alina Tauseef

Art by Alina Tauseef

Saturday Recommendation: When They Call You a Terrorist

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

I do not think I have ever met anyone who could not somehow benefit by reading this book. White people, middle class people, and anyone who experiences the privilege of not being Black in the US will find a lot illuminating in Khan-Cullors powerfully told story of growing up in a culture which simply does not value your life or those of your loved ones. The honesty and vulnerability with which this contemporary story is told means that there is a lot to be learned even for those who feel that they have done a lot of listening, learning, and studying; there are new nuances here that are important. This same emotional heft means that the book has value (at least, I imagine so) for those who do share her experiences because it is validating. Its intersectional dimensionality – careful attention is paid here not only to gender but to sexuality, trans visibility, and more, including how communities and movements have succeeded and failed in organizing at certain moments because it is always a struggle—mean that there are opportunities for everyone to learn. Organizers and activists will also find Khan-Cullors’ words inspiring , validating, and simply nourishing. Those who are not activists will find the book helpful for understanding why others, such as the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, do what they do.

Two short passages that occur near the end of the book:

 “…now it was late, maybe 1:00 in the morning, and I was heading back to my cottage where Mark Anthony was supposed to be sleeping but instead was standing outside our home, barefoot, in pajamas and with his hands cuffed behind his back. … They were able to gain entry to our home because in St. Elmo’s, before this, we never locked the doors. But on this night, the police entered through the back door. They said he fit the description of a guy who’d done some robberies in the area. They offered no further explanation. … Later when I hear others dismissing our voices, our protest for equity, by saying All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they might fit a vague description offered up by God knows who. How many skinny, short, blond men were rounded up when Dylann Roof massacred people in prayer? How many brown-haired white men were snatched out of bed when Bundy was killing women for sport? … Mark Anthony’s cuffs are finally removed, but the police do not leave my home for another two hours, taking down all kinds of information about him, running his license, hoping to find any reason to take him away, this man they yanked out of his own bed in the middle of the night in the house where he lives in a community where he is loved” (pp. 193-195).

And then, a discussion about the formation of the BLM:

“We agree that there is something that happens inside of a person, a people, a community when you think you will not live, that the people around you will not live. We talk about how you develop an attitude, one that dismisses hope, that discards dreams” (p 199).

This book is a record of life in Van Nuys. This book is a record of a movement. This book is a record of state terrorism. This book is a record of a dream.

sadness and struggle

I’ve been trying and failing to finish a lot of writing over the last few weeks. I have felt overwhelmed, with a lot to say, but at the same time not quite able to edit and polish and publish what I’ve got.

Today, after once again writing about 1,500 words without finishing a post, I finally picked up Cindy Milstein’s Rebellious Mourning and read the first essay, Benji Hart’s “Feeling Is Not Weakness.” In it, Hart talks about how sad and depressing it is to connect the dots on the systemic violent oppression of black and brown people. Hart says they feel guilty for being sad, because Hart knows one of the functions of the system is to create demoralization. Sadness makes it feel like this campaign of demoralization is working. In Hart’s words:

“I feel guilty for being demoralized. I should be angry. I should be fiery with unquenchable passion. I should be as relentless as the state. If I am sad, the state has won. If I am sad, the fight is over”(p. 20).

I too feel sad. And I had not realized until just at this moment that I have had writer’s block because I didn’t want to write anything out of my sadness. I didn’t want to let Husky, or city council, or Walker, or Trump, or whoever control my life and my successes and make me sad. I didn’t want the state or capital to win. But feeling sadness when confronted with tragic realities is what makes me human. It is what makes me strong. Hart puts it like this:

“Experiencing hurt around the realities my people and I face is more than understandable; it shows that I have not given in, not accepted the current, violent reality as inevitable, not forfeited belief in my own right to life.”(p. 21)

A compañera of mine put it another way:

“We’re in the heart of the Empire,” I said.
“You’re wrong,” she said, “the Empire has no heart.”

My sadness does not mean the battle is lost. It means I’ve refused to lose what’s at the core of struggle and what we struggle for: my dignity and humanity. My belief that better worlds are possible. My compassion for others. My willingness to see and face systemic injustice. My meaningful connections to people living precarious lives of all kinds. My hope that people can be better people, and that they can find the will and courage to stop enacting their power over others. It’s only when I become so cynical that I lose these things that the fight is over. Sadness is not the sign the battle is lost but the sign that it is still raging, and the sign that I am still willing to fight it.

a blue arm and a white arm hold hands across a paper background with foundation and charity names. the paper is torn to reveal the words "True Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." - Martin Luther King, Jr

Art by Kevin Caplicki for the Poor People’s Campaign, available at Just Seeds Collective.

Saturday Rec: Even the Rain

Even the Rain – También la Lluvia

Pairs well with: all the other movies starring Gael García Bernal, a copy of the Open Veins of Latin America, a willingness to reflect on your own positionality in the world

This is a movie about colonialism and a movie about the Cochabamba water war. In fact, it’s a movie about some people who purport to make a movie about colonialism and in doing so perpetuate some really colonialist behaviors, which is the movie about colonialism that those of us who grew up benefiting from colonialism really need to see. And, somehow, as if that wasn’t a clever enough trope (and trust me, it really is), it’s also the best movie out there about the water war.

two men stare at each other. One man is in costume as an indigenous Taino man in the time of Columbus while the other wears a t-shirt.

Juan Carlos Aduviri and Gael Garcia Bernal in Even the Rain

And then, as if all of that wasn’t enough to make you go watch it now (but it should be), it’s also a movie starring Gael García Bernal!

Here are some other excellent movies starring Gael García Bernal:

  • No (and bring your cynical sense of humor – don’t be too North American while watching)
  • Neruda
  • Y Tu Mamá También
  • The Science of Sleep

between words

I started this blog in part because the air around me was too thick with gaslighting. Because I needed to tell the story of what was happening at UWS and in the UW system not just to the world outside, but to myself. Because I needed to write down and tell so many stories. Writing makes things clearer and makes them make sense. When I don’t have the time to write I start to feel the walls close in and everything feels too quiet here. Up starts to feel like down. I hope I can be back to writing the world into sense again soon.

drawing of an anatomical heart with the text "This Machine Kills Fascists"

Graphic by Jonathan Byxbe of Flight 64 Studio in Portland, OR, via Justseeds Collective

Saturday Rec: Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pairs well with: organic foods, soil-testing kit, and solitary activities once you become unpopular for wanting to make space for the truth and criticizing “Pinktober”

This is another documentary based on a book, an academic text by Samantha King who also appears in the documentary. The film covers the problems with reducing fighting breast cancer to buying stuff with pink ribbons on it and includes many of the problems people have with the Komen foundation. More interesting, however, the film is a powerful discussion of the ways that relentlessly positive thinking is really harmful to people. It shows persuasively that when we focus on positive thinking, we center quick and easy solutions and end up missing real solutions, which are harder and take more time. We do not think about what causes cancer (e.g., living near oil refineries), and how more people are getting it. Instead we focus on finding it early on as if it were an inevitable fact.

Most strikingly the film includes interviews with women dying of breast cancer who discuss how there is no room for them or their experiences in a “movement” which only wants to hear happy stories and see pink objects. Where can one process the experience of dying from a horrible disease if people only want to hear about happy things? How can this be a “good” way of dealing with a disease if there is no room for the people actually experiencing its effects in an authentic way?

A great film for understanding how focusing only on the positive can literally harm the people around you.

policing campus diversity: Somali Night

Yesterday I read the stomach turning account of how my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, treated the Somali Student Association at the end of its cultural week, last Friday. I’m presenting the Somali Student Association’s account here in its entirety, because the whole thing is worth the read. It is one of the most thorough, clear, and comprehensive accounts of a police riot I have ever read. It is an alarming picture of how subtle, purportedly nonviolent, and even micro-level forms of racism combine and become explicit, violent, and massive.

Somali Night Press Release Pg 1Somali Night Press Release Pg 2Somali Night Press Release Pg 3

 

Many things about this statement jump out immediately. One of them is the claim made by employees on a university campus that it would be impossible to use markers on Black skin. This indignity, which must have occurred in the context of so many others during the planning for this event, encapsulates clearly that the University of Minnesota is still unprepared in 2018 for the presence of Black people.

Something else I notice immediately is the calm, composed, and measured tone of this press release, written by a student organization.  So much can be learned just by reading what these students have to say about their experiences. I expect we will learn even more from them by watching how they challenge the university in its reaction.

Students on the University of Minnesota campus have already been reporting on their negative experiences with the cosmetic diversity initiatives embraced by their campus (which is similar to so many others). The Whose Diversity? campaign that began in Spring 2014 created a powerful set of testimonies of experiences of students of color on campus.

Perhaps most telling is that a quick Google search conducted 24 hours after the Somali Student Association’s press release and 3 days after the Somali Night incident itself reveals very little reporting on the event and its heavy policing. I suppose it comes as little surprise that the most cogent and knowledgeable source of information about these events comes from the affected students themselves.

How to Take Action in Solidarity with the Honduran People

image is of the altar for Berta Caceres at Utopia in Honduras
  1. Ask your Congressional Representative to Co-sponsor the Berta Cáceres Act or thank them for already doing so. The bill asks that the United States suspend all “…security assistance to Honduran military and police until such time as human rights violations by Honduran state security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.” It is widely and strongly supported by Hondurans working for justice.
  2. Donate money or time (however small the amount) to an organization like Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective or Honduras Solidarity Network that works in solidarity with social movements on the ground so they can continue to do their work throughout this crisis, including accompaniment work. Avoid giving money to charity-focused organizations that do not seek to empower Hondurans to have autonomy over their own institutions.
  3. Organize a fundraiser for an organization like those above.
  4. Write an email to the US embassy telling them how disappointed you are in their position after informing yourself on the position of the US government in Honduras.
    US Embassy in Honduras Charges D’Affaires Heide Fulton: BronkeHM (at) state.gov
  5. Find and support local justice work in your community because these struggles are about more than just Honduras.
  6. Find ways to publicly let Hondurans know you support them in their struggles. This increases theur visibility by letting the Honduran government know there may be international pressure for certain humsn rughts abuses, and it is simply encouraging for people who have been marginalized to know that others are thinking of them and taking public actions (even pictures) on their behalf.
  7. Pay attention to what is happening in Honduras and tell people you know about it as well. Help others around you understand the connection between US foreign policy and the crisis in Honduras – this is a crisis created and perpetuated, in reality, on US soil, and we can change it by organizing on US soil as well. A few good resources are the Honduras Solidarity Network, Democracy Now!, NACLA, and the Upside Down World.

Last updated April 9, 2019.

Saturday Rec: I Am Not Your Negro

(On Saturdays, I’ll be posting recommendations for movies and books and other stuff. Here’s my first.)

I Am Not Your Negro

Best paired with: cigarettes and a typewriter

Not an incredibly unique documentary recommendation,  but if you haven’t yet seen it, see it now. Even if you already know a lot about race and racism, you will probably see something in a different way or appreciate something differently. The film is beautiful and well-made. The argument, which belongs almost entirely to James Baldwin, is interesting and deep. I re-watched it this week and was again amazed at how ahead of his time Baldwin was. Not because he’s saying things that have relevance in 2018 (although that’s true too), but because he seems to have anticipated the late 1960s and the 1970s well in advance: Notes of a Native Son was published in 1955.

Director Raoul Peck highlights the contemporary resonance in Baldwin’s words beautifully and devastatingly through images.

The flaws: the film is an intersectionality fail. There are almost no Black women in the movie, although Black women played an extremely large and critical role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is a problematic reflection of how history is told rather than how it was. And although Baldwin is well known to have been queer, it’s downplayed in the film.

But even so, see it. See it.

Here’s a teaser of Baldwin’s brilliance:

Photograph of James Baldwin

Click for video of Baldwin. (Photo by Allan Warren)