List: Things that Outlasted My Prestigious “Job for Life” as a Professor in the State of Wisconsin

Things that outlasted my “job for life”:

  • Electronic drip coffee maker on sale at Sears purchased the night before beginning my exciting new dream job
  • Expensive brand name satchel selected to differentiate me from students and celebrate the completion of my PhD
  • $4 cactus purchased from Home Depot to beautify my office, variety “Peruvian Old Lady”
  • 300 unused business cards
  • Moist towlette left in the drawer from a first week take out meal, still moist!
  • Cheap ball-point university branded pen given to me during orientation, still full of ink!
  • Tide to-go instant stain remover stick, still functional and ready for use at whatever exciting new employment adventure awaits me! (Probably retail.)

Things that did not outlast my tenure track job:

coffee-maker-clipart-1

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.”

Reading on the Chaos in the UW system

Today I’m presenting a master list of high quality commentary and analysis on what has been going on in the University of Wisconsin system over the last several months, particularly around the merger of the UW Colleges and the extensive program cuts at UW-Superior and UW-Stevens Point.

I am a sociologist, and we are fond of saying that our discipline does not give us the tools to read the future. That being said, if I was the kind of person who made bets, I would be willing to place money on the fact that we will soon see another announcement of deep program cuts to another UW campus, made in the absence of faculty, student, and community input. Too much groundwork has already been laid for this to be the end of it. I think it will be important to be informed about what the situation is in Superior, at Stevens Point, at the Colleges, and throughout the UW system, as these cuts continue to roll forward.

Clenched blue fist in the shape of the state of Wisconsin with the text Stand with Wisconsin at bottom.

Eulogy for UWS

I did not plan to be a college professor when I entered my PhD program in sociology. I was interested in more directly community engaged work and writing. I fell in love with teaching during my fieldwork at a movement run high school for adults in Buenos Aires, where I co-taught social sciences in a classroom populated primarily by young women who lived in the neighboring shantytown. But even so, I was highly suspicious that this experience could be replicated inside of a bureaucratic institution of higher education in any meaningful way.

It was only toward the end of my tenure as a graduate student when I saw one particular job listing that I decided to look for jobs teaching at the university level. The job was at the University of Michigan-Flint, a regional comprehensive university where my mom had graduated when I was a kid.

Looking at the posting brought back a flood of memories of attending classes the few times she didn’t have childcare, and had to take me to classes with her. These days are burned into my memory, because the visual inspection, behavior talk, and overall prep was intense! I must have been in about second grade, and I can remember my mom talking me into wearing my best clothes by telling me this is what all the “college girls” would be wearing. I know I was much more dressed up than I usually got just to go to my own school. Now I can see that my mom was worried about being embarrassed by having me or us look too poor, since having to bring your kid to class is already a bad way to stick out at college. Once I can remember getting a new toy doll just in order to go to class to be sure that I wouldn’t become restless during the lecture. Although I was generally a pretty good kid, I still remember the very serious talk I got before going to those classes about how essential it was that I be absolutely good.

I have told this story to more than one student at UWS, because I wanted these students to feel welcome in my classes and on our campus. And I always tell them their kids are welcome in my classes, because I know they will behave. After all, I know exactly the serious talk they got before coming to the class. I have wanted to be part of expanding these students’ access to education, their access to big ideas, and part of expanding their world. My mom’s life circumstance forced her to leave high school but her child is a college professor, in no small part because of my exposure to the importance of College, capital C, through her and her persistence in completing it.

I didn’t get the job at U of M-Flint, but after I saw that listing I knew that I wanted to teach students like my mom. Not just students with kids, but nontraditional students; students who never thought they’d find themselves in a university for a variety of reasons including race and social class; students who are afraid that if something goes wrong, someone will figure this out, and they won’t be let back in. UW-Superior has provided a tremendous environment for doing this, because it is open enrollment, has small class sizes, has a public liberal arts college mission, and my department is very supportive of deeper methods of teaching and learning. All of this is unsustainable with the loss of any faculty voice in the running of the campus, the partnership with for-profit companies who will put pressure on the campus to develop easier curricula for faster degrees regardless of what is being learned (if they haven’t already started), and the elimination of nearly all the liberal arts disciplines on campus. There is no longer any institutional support for these experiences.

I have been able to be a part of amazing transformations in my few short years at UWS that are considered impossible in most educational environments, and I will be grateful for that experience. But I will mourn the tremendous loss for all of us in the region at the abandonment of that mission, and I will not participate in the charade that it has not been abandoned. This is no longer the UWS where I hoped to spend the next twenty five years teaching.

picture is of 25 handmade headstones with the names of academic programs set out in a univeristy building. in the background is a cardboard casket flanked by paper flowers.

Headstones for each cut major and minor program and a casket for the University of Wisconsin-Superior we knew and loved. The funeral was held Saturday, April 14, 2018. Photo Credit: Trudy Fredericks.

lazy professor up at night

Last fall my university made the very sudden announcement to close the sociology program as well 24 others. Part of this experience as a faculty member is being told that it’s our fault, constantly. We are implicitly and explicitly blamed for not doing enough before this point. Chancellor Wachter has said over and over again that the “students voted with their feet,” which is just a way of saying if I/we had been offering worthwhile classes, I/we wouldn’t be in this situation (among other problematic implications of this phrase she loves so much). And yet here I am, literally awake at night, either still thinking (uselessly) about what I could do to try to stop these cuts from happening, or about what I could do make our program better, or about how I could recruit more students. The other night I lied in bed with a new idea for bringing back successful graduates (which is most) to meet our current students. I had pretty much fully developed the idea before I realized the entire thing is moot. There is no sociology program to recruit anybody in to. There is no reason to ease anybody’s fears about majoring or even minoring in sociology. In fact, perhaps students have good reason to be afraid of these majors and minors. Perhaps they should be afraid the administration will eliminate them, or the faculty time and resources need to sustain them. Working to recruit more students at this point would just be more time I’d spent on something that wouldn’t be valued, and if successful, I’m afraid it would ultimately place more students in the path of destruction.

But thinking about such solutions has become almost like a reflex for me, so that even six months later it’s still hard to stop. So I still haven’t been able to stop. And I don’t know when I will be able to, because ultimately I love(d) what I do. And I wasn’t coming up with ideas to recruit students to the major just to satisfy some bureaucrat or looking for ways to assuage student fears about what it would mean to major in sociology to bolster our numbers, but I was doing it because I wanted to teach. Because I thought that majoring in sociology would actually be meaningful for students, and because I know our graduates are actually out in the world happy with their work and I’d love to see more people doing that. It’s hard for me to turn that off, because it’s hard to accept the destruction of that possibility.

I see the same difficulty turning this impulse off in my colleagues too. We keep trying to do our jobs as if the old things mattered, although we have been pretty much told over and over again by our bosses that none of what we do matters, or at least not a lot of it. But old habits die hard, and it’s precisely because we believed passionately in those old habits. Because we weren’t and still aren’t the people we’re accused of being. And that’s one of the most painful bits. We’re accused of being these lazy arrogant out of touch people who don’t care at all for our students by people who actually seem to be all of those things.

Sheep alone awake in a field at night.

Cartoon by Graham Licence

I’m left with a few hanging sociological questions for another day about the myth of the lazy professor: Who does the myth connect with? Who believes it? Anyone? Our students’ parents? Do the administrators and politicians who deploy it, or is it used totally cynically? (I don’t think the administrators believe it; I suspect they know it’s untrue and that’s why it will offend us so much.) Why does it hurt me so much if I’m not sure who believes it?

Losing the University

The university was never meant to be a place for liberation and social justice, but from its start was built for straight, white, able-bodied, cis-male elites. Rod Ferguson reminds us in his work We Demand that the fact that many of us associate universities with something else – with diversity, with the possibility for envisionining anticapitalist politics, with social justice movements – is in many ways the product of student struggles. Universities themselves have resisted these associations. Ferguson recalls for us that in 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University by the National Guard. Ten days later, police shot approximately 400 bullets into a women’s dorm at Jackson State University, killing two students. The reaction to these murders by dozens of college presidents was to “petition their state legislators not to curtail but to augment police powers on their campuses”(15-16).

The point is that I know the university is not nor has it ever been this romantic perfect place. I remind myself of that fact constantly. I was never planning on making a life here in academia in the first place; I didn’t feel like it was my life’s mission to teach undergraduate students and I have always felt like there are much better and more direct ways to make social change than education. This makes it easier to remember that the university has always been flawed, it wasn’t meant for anyone other than straight white male elites, and if some of the rest of us have managed to increasingly arrive in the past 100 years, especially the last 50 years, it has been for the most part, an anomaly. And it has been the fruits of our struggle. They didn’t want us here in the past and they don’t want us here now. They have never wanted us here. Ferguson says

For university and political elites, then, the social categories ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ were never meant to inspire appreciation for the student movements, movements that might shed light on social inequalities and recommendations for transcending them. “Tolerance” and “diversity” were instead ways of saying “Society must be defended”—that is, protected from the student, who was understood to be a criminal from the start. (2017: 23)

In other words, it is not necessarily a tragedy to lose this place because there are and have always been other ways of doing this. Marginalized communities have always found ways to educate themselves, and those ways, being designed by and for liberation, have more liberatory potential than any institution which has always fought to keep us out.

But knowing all of that doesn’t seem to be helping me feel less sad right now. It doesn’t seem to be helping me much at all. The fact is that I feel I’ve benefitted enormously from my time in and around universities and it seems like many of my most marginalized students have done so as well. While these other forms of learning and education, free schools and free universities and popular educational models which I’ve been a part of, can be much more liberatory in the end, I’m afraid they will still be much more limited in their reach than the good ol’ public university in its heyday was. (Because was is really starting to seem like the operative concept here.)

Ironically, I mean, I wouldn’t even know about free schools without my exposure to the university… that’s certainly not true for everybody. And it needn’t be true. But I think it points to why I feel hope lacking in this moment. I feel a light going out. And sure, that light was really dysfunctional in the first place but it was granting wide access and possibility and acting as a funnel, at least for many students, to something much better, to much more critical ideas and action. How many of us were radicalized in the university? Of course there are other sites, other methods, other ways, but undeniably, this sucks.

The loss of access to critical thinking, to liberal arts, to social justice oriented classes throughout Wisconsin (and probably eventually elsewhere), is without a doubt, a loss of something, for some folks, who were in fact benefitting. Even if we do succeed in creating liberatory alternatives, it’s hard for me to imagine they will have the same reach and impact as the public university in its heyday. But I could be wrong. Perhaps I just need to dream bigger. I hope so. Perhaps I just need to get started on the experiment.

Black and white screenprinted poster of a soldier holding a sign that says "I just wanted to go to college." Text at bottom of poster says "End the poverty draft. Stop the war economy."

Image created by Eli Wright at Justseeds Collective for the new Poor People’s Campaign.