In Search of Obliterated Time

It might seem strange that after hibernating for several months (which blogs do in northern climes, in case you don’t watch David Attenborough documentaries), mine stirs to new life to announce this:

A few days ago, my colleagues and I attended a meeting.

I know: makes “Dog Bites Postman” sound like Wikileaks, right? What could be less remarkable? Bear with me a moment, though, because the very ordinariness of this story tells us something important about the State of the Campus.

First, this meeting wasn’t supposed to be ordinary. For several weeks, my colleagues and I in the College of Letters & Science, UWM’s largest academic division, had been reminded of a one-hour “Open Forum” with Chancellor Mark Mone and Provost Johannes Britz. The objective: “to permit the College faculty and administration to engage as a whole with the Chancellor and Provost on matters pertaining to the budget cut and structural deficit, plans to merge/reorganize units on campus, and the new budget model. The format of this event will be question and answer.” Accompanying the announcement was a request for questions in advance, which the dean and his staff could then curate before the meeting in order to make the most of the limited time.

Unfortunately, either the Chancellor and Provost literally didn’t get the memo, or they ignored the part about the format. “Format, shmormat,” you say; “as long as you get access.” Indeed, I’ve found Chancellor Mone and Provost Britz to be remarkably accessible, particularly as leaders of a very large campus that’s been dealing with an enormous crisis for nearly 18 months now. But the format matters.

My colleagues and I have collectively spent thousands of hours over the past eighteen months in ad hoc meetings related to the budget/tenure/shared governance crisis. We’ve made many sacrifices—deferred or cancelled research projects, stayed up even later than usual, worked all weekend, seen less of our families, etc.—in order to step up, get informed, and do what we need to do to respond to this emergency. Too often, though, meetings we thought would shed light on the subject have instead told us nothing, or almost nothing, that we didn’t already know. So we’re constantly put in the position of trying to figure out, when an “important” or “special” meeting is announced (and where our attendance is optional), whether such a meeting will actually have any value at all, except perhaps as an opportunity to say hello to some friends (which we’re perfectly capable of organizing on our own, under much more pleasant circumstances that probably involve caffeine or alcohol, thank you very much).

This time, around 150 of us bet on the “hey, this does sound a bit different; I mean, a chance for L&S faculty to gather as a unit, in solidarity with our dean and with each other, and put key questions directly to the Chancellor and Provost” option. But contrary to the promised format, the Chancellor and Provost started by reading from prepared statements that, for the most part, told us nothing new. To make matters worse, the Chancellor and Provost brought a fog machine that, when activated, emitted thick gases that obscured everything in their path. Well, not an actual fog machine, but Vice Chancellor Robin Van Harpen, previously most notorious to faculty for (1) not only earning one of the highest salaries on campus, but having gotten one 5-figure raise after another during times of severe austerity; and (2) being unable to suppress her glee, at meeting after meeting, when announcing the costs savings to campus as a result of hemorrhaging resignations that have caused tremendous damage to core functions of the institution. Those issues aside, no one I talked to after the meeting thought she added anything particularly comprehensible, much less meaningful.

Attendees were given some time for questions and comments. The last person to be called on was an older student who identified himself as a disabled veteran, and spoke movingly of the many challenges he faces trying to pay his bills and cover the costs of his education so he can finish his degree. As he spoke, the energy in the room palpably shifted. All eyes were on him. Professors nodded in sympathy as the student described his predicament. Before he could finish, though, the session ended abruptly, since a class needed us to leave the room so the lecture could start. Thus, a moment of unintended symbolism: yet again, it was the voice of the most vulnerable in the room that didn’t get heard.

He could have been, though, had the administrators not run out the clock. Sure, it’s a time-honored strategy: you’ve got the lead, so play the sort of offense that takes up the most time, and for God’s sake, don’t give your opponent unnecessary chances to score. Except we’re not the opponent. We’re the faculty, the staff, the students. Our voice has been stifled and muffled in a thousand different ways in this state in recent months, and it’s happening from sea to shining sea: from New York City to Berkeley, from North Carolina to Iowa City, and countless places between and beyond. In a thousand different ways, administrators are not just failing to listen, but actively coming up with ways to avoid listening. It’s damaging and demoralizing, above and beyond all sorts of other damage being done to our institutions and our people.

The Yiddish expression for “waste of time,” bitl-zman [זמן-ביטול], doesn’t do justice to the term’s etymology. The word bitl comes from the Hebrew verb le-vatel [לבטל]: to abolish or cancel. So bitl-zman is a waste of time on steroids, where time is not just wasted, but blown to smithereens. That’s what happens every time we’re summoned to meaningless meetings, and talked at when we should be listened to.

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A Hippocratic Oath for Campus Leaders

American college campuses are increasingly looking like the Berkeleys and Columbias of the 1960s: seething cauldrons of protest and conflict. Our colleges and universities are, more than at any time in my memory, becoming key battlegrounds where our cultural wars are being fought: over matters of race, class, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, U.S. foreign policy (most notably the Israel-Palestine conflict), and indeed education itself.

This turmoil will not die down any time soon; quite the contrary. The most dramatic recent example occurred at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where repeated reports of racist incidents and attitudes on campus tended to be met with either silence or tepid responses from the administration. That dynamic triggered a cascade of protests, and ultimately, demands for, among other things, the resignation of the chancellor and the system president. The protests culminated in a graduate student’s hunger strike and then a planned strike by the football team’s black players, supported by many of the white players and the head coach. With the prospect of a players’ strike—an act of almost religious significance, deep in the heart of football country—Tim Wolfe’s days as system president were numbered. In quick succession, both he and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced their resignations.

The Missouri situation may well be a game changer. Already, students elsewhere are issuing Mizzou-style ultimatums calling for major reforms: high-level resignations; removing the names of allegedly racist figures from campus buildings; appointing new diversity officers or enhancing the status of existing ones; and changes in such areas as curriculum, recruitment, and hiring to make campuses more diverse and help make students of color feel safer and more welcome. Unsurprisingly, a backlash started almost immediately, and given the startling escalation of racist and xenophobic in the wider cultural sphere since the attacks in Paris on November 13th, campuses will face major challenges keeping discussions over these matters peaceful and productive.

So I don’t envy campus leaders their jobs right now, for one needn’t be Nostradamus to predict new hashtag-fueled protests cropping up week after week. What chancellors and presidents can do in response will vary according to the specific protests and protestors. But a number of precedents teach us what they should not do: commit the sorts of unforced errors that have toppled some upper administrators, and landed others in the glaring light of unflattering articles on the front page The Chronicle of Higher Education. Perhaps a kind of Hippocratic Oath for campus leaders could be helpful. Here is a first draft:

  1. I will always remember that I primarily serve my students, staff, and faculty. At the same time, I will bear in mind that my institution plays a significant role in the life of the wider local community.
  2. I will form a clear sense of my institution’s core academic mission, and articulate and support it at every possible opportunity. I will not knowingly take any actions that undermine that mission.
  3. I will listen respectfully to the people and communities I serve. That respect is based on the premise that such people have points of view they are genuinely invested in, and which deserve to be honored, whether or not I agree.
  4. My administration will communicate with people clearly and honestly.[1] When responding to questions and concerns, we will do so in a timely fashion.
  5. I will combat the insidious IBS—Institutional Bloating Syndrome—that is wreaking havoc on American higher education. I will put my administration on a diet, keeping highly paid non-academic positions to a minimum, and making sure that all such positions are vital to the institution’s functioning.
  6. Neither I nor my agents will prescribe any major administrative duties without first (a) considering the amount of work involved by many different people, (b) thinking through the initiative carefully to make sure it is designed sensibly, and (c) being sure that the results it generates will effect a major, positive change on campus.[2]
  7. I will strive to protect and support the most vulnerable people on my campus, and foster an environment marked by equity, fairness, openness and respect.

The next time a campus leader lands in seriously hot water—I promise you won’t have to wait long—keep these in mind. I’m willing to bet that those who adhere to these principles will enjoy greater success than those who don’t. And as a bonus, the oath comes in handy in times of calm and prosperity too.

[1] White lies are allowed. These are narrowly as otherwise inconsequential mistruths that avoid hurt feelings, e.g. “It’s good to see you” or “No, that new mascot uniform does not make your ass look big.”

[2] A shorter way of saying this might be, “No more strategic (or academic or assessment) plans just for show.”

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Eyes and Ears

I’ve had some strange encounters with university administrators in my day, but a recent conversation ranks high on the list. For various reasons, I hesitated to write about it, but the chill wind blowing across American college campuses keeps reminding of a broader context for the conversation in question that makes it that much more troubling.

When we last heard from our blogger, he posted a sharp critique of his chancellor’s performance at a town-hall-style meeting on the budget crisis. Preferring that he get the critique directly from me rather than secondhand, I sent it to him directly. Before I could hear back from him (he sent a cordial reply shortly thereafter), another senior emailed me and asked to meet. A couple of days later, Administrator X, as I’ll call him or her, met me in the campus library’s coffee shop to talk things over.

The meeting got weird quickly. “The Chancellor told me you wrote something about the budget meeting on your blog. He appreciated your sending it to him, but he thinks you made some mistakes. I haven’t read it myself; why don’t you tell me what you wrote?” Cue those old New Yorker pieces that had fun playing with the divide between how we respond in the moment, and what we might have said had we not been caught like a deer in the headlights:

What I Said: “I’d like to know what he thinks I got wrong.  I try to be very careful with the facts.”

What I Wish I’d SaidYou didn’t read it?! You know it’s only about 750 words, right? Do you usually come to meetings completely unprepared?

Also unvoiced was another thought I couldn’t avoid: “Of course you read the blog post! It’s absurd to think that you wouldn’t have.” If I were a betting man, I’d bet that X did read it. If so, why lie about it? I’m not that good at, and not that interested in, parsing the chess moves of people who play these sorts of games, but my guess is that it’s supposed to be some sort of technique to catch one’s opponents off guard so you can more effectively manipulate them. How tedious, and how unproductive.

The weirdness did not end there, though. “We’re all in this together,” X lip-serviced. How to work together? In future, I was asked—a gesture my wife later deemed “polite censorship”—to run any critiques of the administration by them before airing them in public.

What I Said: “Um, hmm, I—well, hmm.”

What I Wish I’d Said: I’ll tell you what: think of me like a theatre critic. I’m using my professional judgment to comment on the subject at hand, and share it with my readers. The critic doesn’t run a draft of his review by the playwright and director before sending it out into the world, and I’m not going to do the equivalent.

And then came the moment of recruitment. “You’re my eyes and ears,” crooned Admin X.

What I Said: “Ah, bah, mm, hmm.”

What I Wish I’d SaidEyes and ears?! I guess you don’t realize how ominous that sounds, but you’re scaring me. And now I wonder who has agreed to be your ‘eyes and ears.

Once out of the headlights, though, I was able to gather my thoughts and respond in more articulate fashion. Here’s the relevant portion of an email message I sent the next day to X, copied to Chancellor Mone:

I appreciate that you value my input, and my sense of what’s being discussed among faculty, staff, and students. As for being “your eyes and ears,” as you put it, that depends on what you mean. I’ll be happy to convey issues and ideas to you if I think that might be productive, but not to be the administration’s point man in sussing out campus climate. I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for, but just want to be clear. The best way to gauge that climate is by talking with many different people and constituencies on campus, which it sounds as if you are doing.

I will also continue to be constructively critical; if that were to stop, I wouldn’t be much use to the University. And I’m not promising to run critiques of the administration by either of you first. As I said yesterday, I don’t criticize gratuitously, and I work hard to get my facts straight. But besides feeling that I have something valuable to say, I’ve seen that my demoralized colleagues need to hear my voice.

To be fair to the administration, in writing X quickly endorsed the more benign interpretation of the meeting:

Thx Joel…I also thought it was a good discussion and we will continue our dialogue at the university – as it should be!

And you’re right on your interpretation of eyes and ears…and I continue meeting people and listening…It is important.

So should we conclude, “No story here—move along”? That’s possible; only time will tell. In the meantime, there are reasons to be vigilant, parse administrators’ words and actions carefully, and call them out whenever they stifle academic speech and academic freedom:

  1. The UW System no longer provides tenure protections for its faculty. That doesn’t need a lot of commentary, except to add that the UW system no longer provides tenure protections for its faculty.
  1. Though administrators have tried to reassure faculty that those protections will be replicated in Board of Regents language, there are numerous reasons to be skeptical about the prospect of that ever happening, as many commentators have observed in recent months.
  1. I would love to be reassured that the administration is not trying to co-opt me, but then why all the language signaling a concerted effort to do just that? I can’t take issue with the email reply I received, but I’m also aware that no sane administrator would say in an email, “We’d like you to report any seditious words or actions by your colleagues.”
  1. None of this is happening in a vacuum. Even in universities where faculty still have an opportunity to earn and then retain tenure protections, administrators sometimes do an end run around those protections, and sanction, stifle, or even fire faculty members who do not toe the line. A spate of stories along these lines has surfaced in recent months, with faculty members’ public comments, statements in class, and scholarly work leading to their jobs being rescinded, their scholarly work censored and monitored—and even to their being fired from a tenured position for using four-letter words in class. The Nation, reporting on the latter incident in the context of some of the others, refers to “what some say is a growing intellectual chill and sexual panic on campus.”

So administrators, take note: even if you consider yourself a vigorous champion of academic freedom—a title you must earn, not just claim—be aware of the wider context when you make any statements to your faculty and staff that might reasonably be perceived as an effort to rein them in. It’s simple, really: if you want to stand up for academic freedom, then do so, consistently and unwaveringly, with both your actions and your words.

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Campus Crisis Communications 101

How should campus leaders speak to their communities in a crisis? How should they strike the balance among key concerns like facing sobering realities, trying to boost morale, and simply conveying significant information?

This has been an ongoing issue in Wisconsin lately. The news out of Madison has been depressing, complex, and highly fluid, so faculty, staff, and students have sought out information wherever they can get it. In response to that, UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone has led a series of town-hall-style meetings, at which he has briefed the campus community and at least sometimes fielded questions.

Last week’s meeting took place just days after Walker signed into law his biennial budget, which includes the one-two punch of a $250 million cut to the UW System and the revocation of tenure protections from state statute. So although it’s midsummer, a large audience came to hear how Mone would respond. Unfortunately, the meeting quickly became an eerily off-kilter cheerleading exercise, leaving hundreds of people who had just experienced perhaps the worst week in their professional lives feeling even more demoralized, which really takes some doing.

Chancellor Mone opened the meeting by describing “what could have been,” had the budget passed as initially describe: with a $300 million cut to the system, translating into a $24 million annual cut to UWM. Instead, said Mone, we face a $12.2 million cut in FY 2015-16, and an $18 million cut in FY 2016-17. The take-home message: UWM is far better off than it might have been. The worst-case scenario, at least in budgetary terms, did not come to pass.

I understand that the Chancellor is walking a thin line. He’s leading a campus under considerable strain, and it does no good if he buckles under it himself. He’s also simultaneously addressing other audiences: legislators, regents, alumni, parents, donors. Finding some silver lining is not only legitimate, but necessary. And factually speaking, he is correct—things could be even worse—and there’s nothing wrong with saying so.

To hear Mark Mone tell it, though, you’d think that UWM had just received a windfall. “Why was our cut that positive?” he asked at one point. His answer: “We have been advocating for UWM … in every possible way … and it’s our steady drumbeat, it’s that constant messaging in every possible way about the importance and the significance of our role … This has been heard…. There are a number of things that bode very well for us.”

Well, maybe. But if you set them alongside the number of things that bode very ill, I know which column will be longer. Failing to acknowledge that, beyond the occasional sprinkling of the word “challenge” into the presentation, shows a degree of tone-deafness that is truly dispiriting.

Perhaps the Mone Administration needs a crisis-management handbook to avoid that happening again. Since standing at the foot of the mountain can be overwhelming, I’m happy to get them started with a few overlapping points:

  1. Don’t whistle at a funeral. For a chancellor who often talks about campus climate, Mark Mone seemed completely oblivious to the climate in just one room. Even if he truly believes that the tenure protections taken out of statute can be replicated in Board of Regents policy, the fact is that right now they are gone, and faculty are shaken. Instead of having those feelings addressed, we were treated to the PowerPoint equivalent of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
  1. Too much sugar is bad for you. We get it: like it or not, the contemporary college chancellor is part CEO, part fundraiser, part cheerleader. But a crisis is a crisis; Winston Churchill didn’t get on the radio during the Blitz and tell his people, “My, look at the air traffic tonight! That Luftwaffe presents quite the challenge, doesn’t it?”
  1. If the emperor is naked, don’t compliment him on his wardrobe. In other words, assume the intelligence of your audience. Not a bad idea in general, but you’re at the helm of a university, for God’s sake. Not only are most of the people listening to you too smart to fall for sugar-coated words; when they hear them, they are going to lose confidence in you.
  1. Trust your donors. Assume that your donors are pretty smart too. And unless they’ve been living in a cave for the past six months–a cave without an internet connection, for that matter–they have at least some idea that we’re not doing business as usual now. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean you can’t fundraise from a position of strength. Just as our donors know we’re facing a crisis of historic proportions, they also know that we continue to do excellent, valuable work. Trust them to be able to hold both of those ideas in their minds at once.
  1. The numbers in your data represent people’s lives. My colleague Jasmine Alinder urged you not to lose sight of this, and it’s worth repeating. Emotions are raw right now, so deal with people accordingly. And do them the basic courtesy of giving them the information they need in a timely fashion. The “Transformational Team” you you’re assembling to come up with “big ideas” is going to transform some people right out of their jobs, and make other seismic changes. People need honesty, not just pep talks, so they can make plans for the sake of their careers, their bank accounts, and their loved ones.

Even under normal circumstances, faculty, staff, and students are fairly allergic to management-speak. Regardless of the languages and vocabularies they use in their work, what they need from their campus leaders are explanations in plain, unvarnished English.

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Academic Freedom v. Radio Silence

The latest Twitstorm arising out of the University of Wisconsin’s budget/tenure/ governance crisis features Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at UW-Madison, and an outspoken critic of the leadership of Chancellor Rebecca Blank. Goldrick-Rab, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “acknowledges that she searched Twitter for future Badgers … to inform them of changes to faculty tenure and shared governance that were about to become part of state law — changes that she believes would hurt the quality of their education, but that the university wasn’t telling them about.” That exchange from early June didn’t get much attention until she tweeted, on July 1, “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many — it’s terrifying.”

One of the students Goldrick-Rab had contacted then asked the University to address the matter, resulting in a formal reprimand from UW-Madison’s University Committee, which concludes that “While claiming to stand for academic freedom, [Professor Goldrick-Rab] has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations. We stand with our fellow faculty, staff, and students who have devoted themselves to maintaining and building on our university’s extraordinary and distinguished record of teaching, research, and service to the people of Wisconsin and beyond.”

The statement is peculiar, wrong-headed, and disturbing. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Sara (full disclosure: a Facebook friend I have never met in person) is neither here nor there; ironically, it is this committee’s statements, not hers, that threaten to damage the principle of academic freedom. And having risen to the rank of Professor at Madison, Sara has by definition been deemed to have an “extraordinary and distinguished record of teaching, research, and service to the people of Wisconsin and beyond.” That’s no less true today than it was before all of this started.

And where is Chancellor Blank in all of this? Oddly, an earlier version of the Journal-Sentinel story included a quote from her, now deleted, to the effect that this incident shows that the loudest voices often aren’t the ones that are right: a platitude that avoids addressing either the content of Sara’s statements or the broader principle of academic freedom. (Perhaps, speculates my UWM colleague Richard Grusin, she got the university committee to do her dirty work “so as not to hurt her own chances for a new university presidency?”) Her near-silence represents a missed opportunity—and one that other chancellors and presidents, at places like Illinois, Memphis, and Boston, keep missing as well. So I’m going to try stepping into Becky Blank’s shoes for a moment, and imagine what she could say that would show true leadership:

“In recent days, a heated controversy has emerged regarding statements made by one of my faculty members, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who has expressed her criticism of this institution in tweets directed at incoming freshmen, and made connections, via a statement she attributes to her grandfather, between the psychology of Governor Scott Walker and Adolph Hitler.

“Today I neither endorse Professor Goldrick-Rab’s statements nor censure them. Instead, and more important, I support her right to make them, for this incident gets to the very heart of the place of the university in a free society.

“Before I go on, though, let me say this in the interest of full disclosure: Sara Goldrick-Rab has been a tough critic of mine since even before I became Chancellor. While her critiques have not always been comfortable to hear, I welcome them, for they come from her professional training and expertise, and are made with the aim of strengthening this institution. A strong leader listens to critics perhaps more than to supporters, and draws upon the best ideas of both.

“Setting aside this personal history, we must understand that great colleges and universities, however well-groomed and picturesque their campuses, are often quite messy in other ways. First-rate universities, and those that aspire to that level, seek to attract, retain, and nurture the finest minds in their fields. That such people will at times court controversy is a given; it is also desirable. For no great discoveries are made without intellectual friction, and the meaning of those discoveries often generates further debate—sometimes centuries of it.

“This controversy isn’t the first of its kind, and it won’t be the last. While each case is unique, some basic characteristics connect Steven Salaita in Illinois, Saida Grundy in Boston, Zandria Robinson in Memphis, and now Sara Goldrick-Rab. Controversies over one or more public statements by these professors arose out of highly emotional topics in the national spotlight: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, race, gender, violence, education policy. It’s no accident that we’re not seeing viral stories featuring scientists angrily debating the life cycle of molluscs.

“When faculty members with a stake in these issues bring their expertise and/or their personal backgrounds to the table, tweet about them in the heat of the moment, and then have those statements scrutinized in the harsh light cast by the internet, it’s inevitable that hackles will get raised, sensibilities inflamed, feelings hurt. It is exactly at such moments that our principles of academic freedom are most precious.”

Instead, Becky Blank has gone radio silence. Her most recent tweets—wishing a UW student luck in the Miss America pageant and talking about her July 4th plans—are as American and uncontroversial as apple pie. What has filled the void left by her silence on more pressing matters are (1) a reprimand that gets the idea of academic freedom exactly backward, and (2) a cyber-firestorm filled both with calls for Sara’s dismissal and—surprise, surprise!—a stream of personal, misogynistic vitriol that has no place in any discussion. The latter, sadly, has become commonplace in our Age of Toxicity. The former was avoidable. The absence of leadership from the very top is, once again, more than lamentable.

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Tenure: A Eulogy

Dear Tenure,

It’s still a little hard to believe that we’re all gathered here today to say good-bye to you. I know you’d been ill lately, but even until close to the end, many of us hoped against hoped that you’d pull through. But now you’re gone, and we’re all trying to imagine what the world will look like without your reassuring presence. You’ve been such a big part of our lives ever since we first met you, and living without you is going to take some adjustment.

For me, this is something of a double death, for I earned tenure, along with my promotion to associate professor, at the University at Albany, SUNY, a name that has become infamous in higher-education circles ever since its administration announced, in the fall of 2010, that it would cut five arts and humanities programs as a result of poor management and lack of academic integrity the post-2008 financial crisis. Just before that announcement, I had left for what were then greener pastures, leaving a department that was dying on the vine to become director of an academic center with great potential, if a recent seven-figure gift and the institutional and community support that came with it were any indication.

Still, it wasn’t an entirely straightforward decision, because though Albany is not exactly Paris, my family had a good life there. We had made very dear friends, and even if the university was a mess, I had terrific colleagues whom I loved working with. We managed to do good work despite the lack of vision at the helm of the institution—a combination that has become all too common across academia. The moment of epiphany, though, came during a long walk with my wife as the deadline for our decision to stay or go was fast approaching. She turned to me and said, “You’ve been working so hard, but I feel as if you’ve been wearing shackles. It’s time to take them off. Let’s go to Milwaukee.”

My wise and generous wife was right: here, the shackles did come off. Despite its own encounters with the budget crisis, UW-Milwaukee has provided an environment that has allowed my colleagues and me to achieve many good things. We’ve hosted notable scholars, writers, and performers; curated art exhibits; organized workshops and symposia; taught and mentored students; partnered with many programs on campus and organizations in the wider community; written books and articles, and made an impact in our fields. It has been challenging to do all this in an increasingly constrained budget environment, but we have been creative and resourceful, and continue to accomplish important things.

Then, tenure, a few months ago, we suddenly learned that you had fallen gravely ill. Looking back, it all seems so avoidable. The budget “crisis” that supposedly triggered your illness was completely fabricated, and no evidence was ever presented to show that sacrificing you would help the system financially anyway. But those most responsible for your care made a series of disastrous choices, and your health went into free fall. Politicians repeatedly slandered the dedicated employees of the state’s universities, and demeaned the valuable work we do. Most of the regents of the university failed to resist changes that threaten to permanently unravel one of the world’s great public university systems. The system president, not to be outdone, has repeatedly thanked the legislature for the poison pills it has doled out. And if any UW chancellor has come out with a full-throated articulation of the value of academic work and the danger of a $250 million cut, the removal of tenure protections, and the weakening of shared governance, then I must have missed it.

And now you are but a memory. I remember being able to speak my mind about what I thought was best for the institution, without even imagining that doing so might threaten my livelihood. I remember being able to teach challenging texts in class without worrying that someone might take offense for any reason, and try to have me fired. I remember inviting speakers to talk about sensitive topics, knowing that should any of my guests’ remarks court controversy, my position would be secure.

I appreciated your being with me for all of those reasons, and now that you are gone—at least from public higher education in Wisconsin—I miss you tremendously. I expect I will occasionally pause before hitting “send” after writing an email, wondering if even the most calmly worded critique of an administrative proposal might land on the wrong desk, and be met with recriminations. I may find myself scanning the audience when one of my visiting speakers makes a provocative statement, and wonder whether the frown on an audience member’s face could translate into something more dangerous. Maybe a post on this very blog, or a tweet, will bring the sword of Damocles down on my head. That’s not even a far-fetched scenario any more.

So tenure-in-Wisconsin, my old friend, rest in peace. I hope we’ll see each other again. I’ll cling to at least a small ray of hope and wish for your resurrection, speedily and in our day. Or maybe I’ll meet you again in some other place. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will raise a glass in your memory, mourn your passing, and figure out how to carry on in a world—or a state, at least—that no longer has you in it.

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The Tenure-Flavored University

What’s left of a university when some of its core ideals and protections have been gutted? And what do its faculty and staff do now?

Those are the grim questions we’re faced with at the end of a grueling roller coaster of a budget process that has played out in Wisconsin over the past five months, starting with the bombshell announcement, in late January, of a planned $300 million cut to the UW System, and the system’s conversion into a public authority. After months of UW supporters taking to social media, traditional media, and other formats to make their case, the final result is slightly different, but hardly any better. Now awaiting Scott Walker’s signature is a proposed $250 million cut to the system, the removal of tenure protections from state statute and their replacement with expanded provisions for firing tenured faculty, and the watering down of the UW System’s justifiably vaunted mechanisms of shared governance. In other words, education in Wisconsin right now looks like the closing moments of Hamlet, with corpses strewn across the stage but minus the arrival of a nobleman to help restore order.

Indeed, many of us are left with grave doubts about not just the effectiveness of our campus leaders, but of their motivations. Chancellors like Madison’s Rebecca Blank and UWM’s Mark Mone are trying to reassure us that the tenure protections that used to be enshrined in statute will be replicated in Board of Regents rules, but many of us are having trouble seeing how the latter, even if enacted, could possibly protect anyone against the broadly and vaguely worded firing provisions that Scott Walker can enact with a flick of his pen. And the combination of system leadership’s public embrace of new “efficiencies” and “flexibilities,” and their failure to lead a cohesive, vigorous opposition to the state GOP’s all-out assault on its public universities, certainly leaves this observer feeling far from optimistic about how our ships are to be steered through the fog and darkness that will hang over us for at least the next few years, and possibly much longer.

In the meantime, it looks almost certain that those of us who are tenured will no longer be tenured—at least not in any meaningful way—and that those who were on their way to earning tenure on a UW campus will no longer be able to do so, again in any more than name. So we are left asking questions we never thought we’d need to ask, starting with, as the poet once asked, Should I stay or should I go? Some are already going. UW-Madison’s Mahesh Mahanthappa is moving his plastics lab to the University of Minnesota, while his colleague Frank Kreutsch is relocating his atmospheric chemistry lab to Harvard. With them go years of expertise, graduate assistants, and significant actual and potential grant funding. Chuck Rybak has poignantly described the impending departures of several of his most esteemed colleagues at UW-Green Bay. And such resignations are undoubtedly at the vanguard of a large exodus of talent from the system that may make it impossible for any UW campus ever to return to its former glory, even if the destructive measures about to be enacted get reversed in the not-too-distant future.

Many good people will remain, for a wide variety of reasons, including their love of their institutions (in spite of everything!), the state (ditto!), their communities, their friends and families. Some of us who had grown accustomed to being able to speak our mind as a result of having earned tenure protections through an arduous, multi-year process may speak out a bit less. Some may start looking over our shoulders a bit more. Others may end up going in exactly the opposite direction, all but daring their overlords to try to get rid of them. That could make for some interesting, and perhaps even historically important, legal battles.

While some will leave, who if anyone will take their place, if and when there’s any funding available for new hires? I find it hard to imagine anyone aspiring to a tenure-track position in the UW System in the wake of these developments. (And side note: maybe the UW needs a new category for such positions. I suggest either “tenure-track-style” or “tenure-track-flavored”; almost as good [not really] as the real thing!) I also find it hard to imagine myself arguing for new hires in either my program or department with the same zeal that I used to. I predict that tenure-track-flavored jobs here will become like post-docs not on steroids, but perhaps on multivitamins. That is, good applicants might consider taking them as a decent place to start their careers, until they can move on to institutions where earning tenure actually means something.

Mind you, even those stark choices will look like luxuries to those with fewer options: grossly underpaid and overworked lecturers with limited mobility or leverage, or employees—tenured, tenure-track, or otherwise—whose programs will fold under the weight of the devastating budget cuts about to be enacted. Moving to another institution can be complicated and disruptive, but at least there’s a new, often better job at the end of that process. Not everyone, by any means, will end up being so fortunate.

This is a dark chapter in the story of public higher education in this country. Whether it is to remain a local story or, God forbid, a national franchise is one of the broader questions hanging over us. For that answer, as for many others, we will all have to stay tuned–and stay alert.

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So Many Books, So Little Marx

A college professor’s morning routine looks a lot like most other people’s, except for the Marxism thing. For while they’re brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and having breakfast, professors are already mapping out another day in the Marxist indoctrination of their students. By the time that second cup of coffee has been drunk, any professor who’s worth a damn will have planned some promising strategies for marching those wide-eyed young ‘uns a step or two closer toward the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by an international brotherhood and sisterhood of enlightened workers.

As Teyve the Dairyman might ask, “Sounds crazy, no?” And yet it’s not far from how my colleagues and I are regularly portrayed in the red-in-the-face side of the media. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, cites statistics showing the leftward leanings of a majority of college professors as a sign that they are attempting to indoctrinate students—without a shred of evidence that the former, even if true, actually leads to the latter. David Horowitz channeled his scorn for lefty professors into a list-cum-book with the appropriately McCarthyite title The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. And speaking of crazy, Google “Marxist Professors” and you’ll find a disproportionate number of hits dedicated to Marxist-Professor-in-Chief Barack Obama. On sites like, you can further stoke your rage by reading “proof” that the President is a “Communist / SocialistMuslimRussian AgentSerial LiarJew HaterRacistNarcissistGaySoros PuppetEvil Man.”

Setting the President’s alleged virtuosity aside, though, let’s take a closer look at our so-called “tenured radicals.” (A side note that we can discuss further some other time: those of us who have tenure are in a rapidly shrinking minority of college instructors.) Are university faculties really dominated by a bunch of lefties? There’s plenty of reason to think that more often than not, those who teach in universities hold views to the left of center. Why? The best explanation comes from Stephen Colbert’s observation that “Reality has a liberal bias,” for the pursuit of a PhD is really an in-depth study of a corner of reality, whether grounded in the natural sciences, social sciences, or humanities.

How far to the left are college professors? I really couldn’t tell you. I’ve exchanged ideas with colleagues whose views range from left of Che Guevara to right of Darth Vader. The overwhelming majority, though—in this country, at least—are nowhere near those two poles. Many have little interest in politics whatsoever. Many others are fairly mainstream liberals, or fairly mainstream conservatives. And how about dyed-in-the-wool Marxists? A few are kicking around, but my sense is it’s vanishingly few. But much more to the point: so what?

“So what?” because first of all, the whole point of our country is supposed to boil down to freedom, right? Isn’t that what W and his cronies were nattering on about for eight years, accompanied by no small expenditure of blood and treasure? Isn’t that what we hear from the Tea Party and Fox News on a minute-by-minute basis? Well, to quote those folks back to themselves, freedom isn’t free; sometimes you have to put up with listening to ideas that don’t completely parrot your own. Deal with it.

Second, what’s most laughable about the idea that your average college professor spends a significant amount of time plotting the Marxist indoctrination of his or her students is the gaping abyss between that scenario and the realities of higher education, for three simple reasons: (1) indoctrination is lousy pedagogy, (2) we don’t have time for it even if we wanted to, and (3) it would work on our students about as well as insisting they adulate us on demand. Because teenagers.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve spent countless hours talking to colleagues about pedagogy, and those exchanges often boil down to a few basic questions. Is what I’m doing working? How do I know? What techniques, new or old, might I incorporate into my teaching so I can inspire, motivate, and challenge my students better? What does a meaningful assignment or exam look like? What information or tools do I need to equip my students with so their experience with me will have been worthwhile?

None of the above is about indoctrination, because indoctrination doesn’t require such questions to be asked, and really, we have other fish to fry. In humanities classrooms like the ones I teach in, those questions translate into more basic ones. How do I get the students to read the text? Why don’t they just read the text when I ask them to? Why does “read” mean something so different to most of my students than it does to me? Why do some of them struggle even to write a proper sentence? How am I supposed to teach them the mechanics of writing when I have so much material to cover?

So Fox-flavored conspiracy theorists of the world, relax. My colleagues and I are not conspiring to have the proletariat occupy Starbucks and overthrow their capitalist overlords. If there’s any conspiracy afoot, it’s the one to dismantle student’s access to a quality education, leading us to spend so much time and energy filling in gaps in knowledge and method that would better have equipped our students for college in the first place.

Meanwhile, teaching students to scrutinize the world around them, challenge assumptions and prevailing wisdom, question the agendas of those who produce the information they receive, question their own biases and agendas, and back up their conclusions with solid evidence, is not Marxism. It’s called thinking.

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Panther Pride

I have school spirit to burn, even if it doesn’t always show itself in the most obvious ways. Don’t bother looking for me at pep rallies. I don’t have a rack full of neckties in our school colors, black and gold ties, though I suppose that will have to change if I’m never named head basketball coach. Which seems unlikely, given my utter lack of qualifications and the fact that in five years at UWM, I haven’t attended a single UWM Panthers basketball game (though I wish them well—really!). And to be completely honest, emails with subject lines like “Show Your Panther Pride” don’t tend to grab my attention for long.

But that doesn’t mean I lack Panther Pride, any more than my failure to wear an American-flag lapel pin makes me unpatriotic; I just don’t find flag-waving to be the most compelling form of patriotism. And having moved to Milwaukee five years ago knowing little about either the city or its only public research university, I have come to love both. I have nothing against going to UWM sporting events, wearing black and gold ties, or, for that matter, wearing UWM lapel pins. I just tend to show my Panther Pride in other ways: some of them silent and invisible, but some, given my role at the university, vocal and visible. Now that I have a blog, and now that UWM is poised to be decimated by massive budget cuts and structural changes, this seems like a good time to spell out what a few things I love about this institution. Unable to say all of it in such a short space, let this serve as a short love letter to my colleagues.

College professors often get a bad rap these days, particularly in places like Wisconsin (and North Carolina, and Indiana, and Kansas, and Arizona, and…). We can talk about why this has happened until the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, but one reason is that few people appreciate the qualities that it takes to land and keep a full-time academic job in the first place. Note that I write “qualities,” rather than “work” or “time” or “effort,” considerable as all of those are. Those issues also suggest some of the qualities of successful faculty, tenured or not: their perseverance; their tenacity; their ability to focus on distant goals, often with little or no financial payoff. And all of this often at the expense of short-term earnings, comfort, and sometimes even happiness.

I applaud those qualities, and surely America as a whole, with its vaunted Protestant work ethic does too, no? But the focus on time and effort tends to overshadow the traits that lead people to pursue a career in academia in the first place. Why put up with six or more years of barely scraping by during graduate school, only to compete in an increasingly uncertain job market? For most academics I’ve encountered, the answer is a variation on “Because nothing else would be as meaningful to me.” What makes academic work meaningful varies, but it tends to come down to the agony and ecstasy of toiling away for years so that one can ultimately add a brick or two to the edifice we call human knowledge. For many academics—at least the ones who land tenure-track jobs in a research university like UWM—the privilege of being able to devote one’s professional life to that quest is the great reward for all the effort and sacrifice.

The quest that takes place in the archive, or the laboratory, or the field, or simply at one’s desk, intertwines with the quest to share one’s knowledge with students. While the mysteries we unlock in our research is the main thing that gets us hired and promoted (hence the phrase “publish or perish”), it’s with students that we see the most immediate fruits of our labor. That helps account for why I spend far more time talking to colleagues about individual students, students in general, and what is or is not working in the classroom, than about the research projects we’re working on at any given time.

One’s teaching and research often feel as if they’re worlds apart. But at the end of the day, the main thing that connects them is what I love most about universities and most of the people who work in them: their idealism. Universities like UWM were founded and are operated on the premise that they improve the lives not just of the people who work and study there, but also of the wider communities that they serve, and the many fields of inquiry housed on their campuses. Against so many odds, faculty and staff come to campus every day and embrace that premise. They explore and share ideas. They make discoveries, individually and in collaboration with others. They agonize over the well-being of their students. They figure out ways, even as budgets get slashed time after time, to do the proverbial more with less, whether it’s a grossly underpaid lecturer teaching classes filled beyond capacity, a dedicated staff member finding every more creative ways to stretch diminishing budget dollars, or a librarian judiciously ordering materials to keep the library’s holdings as robust as possible.

As in any crisis, the one currently facing the UW System has shown the best and worst of human nature. On one side we find the malicious collective character assassination of public servants dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, the betterment of society, and the well-being of their students, an attack aided and abetted by smokescreens, evasions, lies, tricks, and an utter disregard for the widespread damage the proposed changes will bring—not just to the system, but to so many other facets of the state. On the other side are thousands of educators and staff members stoically carrying on in spite of the relentless denigration of their efforts, and the complete distortion of what they do and who they are. In this post I’ve tried to sketch a few key features of who they are. In the next, some observations on what academics do. Spoiler alert: no Marxist indoctrination involved.

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Universities are Not Startups

Welcome to Wisconsin, aka Wississippi, aka Ground Zero of the battle for the soul of American higher education. My colleagues and I have ringside seats, and this fight is coming to a university near you. So pull up a chair.

You may have read the headlines already. If so, you’ve seen that the state legislature has introduced a bill that will remove tenure protections from state statute, and water down the robust shared-governance protocols that have so successfully prevailed throughout the UW System for many decades. Faculty are up in arms, and many, including myself, are beyond disappointed with the rhetoric of our so-called leaders. Several blogs that I greatly admire have called them out on this, so I won’t rehash all of that here. But for smart, readable, sometimes scathingly funny, and often heartbreaking assessments of this situation, get yourselves over to the blogs written by my UW colleagues Rachel Buff, Nick Fleisher, Richard GrusinChuck Rybak, and Kelly Wilz.

For this first post, I’d like to focus not on the attack on universities itself, but on what’s being attacked and how little sense the attack makes.

Contrary to the rhetoric that often surrounds us about higher education, universities are not startups. They have been around for at least a millennium, depending on how one defines a university, and arguably much longer. Having accumulated all those centuries of experience, we as a society have a pretty good idea as to the ingredients that make them successful. Hire the most accomplished scholars you can. Put them through a rigorous review process of their research, teaching, and service, but also invest in their efforts, financially and otherwise. Support their efforts to improve the minds and lives of their students, to whom almost all the faculty I’ve worked with for the past quarter century are passionately committed. Teach those students to think critically, creatively, and independently. Search for truth wherever it leads, whether in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, or professions.

In Wisconsin, the recipe has been remarkably successful. This is most apparent in Madison, where the flagship of the UW system is, by anyone’s reckoning, one of the top universities in the world. Exactly where it falls varies a bit depending on whose list you consult. It might be 27th30th, or 41st  (tied with New York University), but regardless, UW-Madison is in elite company. So why “fix” something that not only isn’t broken, but works better than almost everything else of its kind? Legislators, the university regents, and campus leaders have been asked to explain this over and over. They have yet to give a coherent answer, though–or to answer the related question of how they expect the radical changes they are proposing will make the UW System any better. Instead, we get neoliberal mumbo-jumbo, endlessly parroted by System President Ray Cross and chancellors like Rebecca Blank (Madison) and Mark Mone (Milwaukee), about the splendors of greater “flexibilities” and “efficiencies.” As if those are the pillars on which intellectual greatness stands. As if those were the key ingredients in helping expand students’ minds. As if one can’t tweak an institution’s purchasing rules while preserving tenure and shared governance.

Despite the record of distinction that institutions in the UW System have accrued over the 150-plus-years’ existence, despite the fact that they help put the state on the international map, despite the countless ways they contribute to knowledge, and to the economy, so-called conservatives want to tear down the universities and replace them with–well, it’s not entirely clear, but apparently with something that looks like a corporation. And not a particularly well-run corporation at that, at least judging from what’s going on in Wisconsin. Rather than an open and transparent discussion, we are offered lies, evasions, subterfuges, and weasel language. We also have a system president who has not only conspicuously failed to stand up for the principles of tenure and shared governance, but in fact thanked the legislature for tearing the heart out of the very system he governs. Or was supposed to govern. Or so we thought.

The battle for the University of Wisconsin has been by turns infuriating, depressing, and, dare I say, energizing. Why energizing? Because when a precious resource and a cherished institution are under assault, we are reminded–if we ever needed reminding–how precious it is. Because while we are facing enemies who have nothing but contempt for everything that universities represent, we also have allies, among the many amazing people who work and study in universities, and in the wider world beyond the college campus. Because those allies care not just about this battle, but other battles to which it’s linked: for K-12 education; for compassion for the vulnerable and underprivileged; for the environment; for nothing less than what the Workmen’s Circle, the progressive Jewish organization for which I once worked, sums up as the fight for a shenere un besere velt: a more beautiful and better world.

Regardless of how the present battle plays out, in a vote that will presumably be held at some point this summer, those battles will go on. Part of me wishes that they didn’t have to be fought. Part of me would rather be in the library right now, working on my next article or book chapter. I’ll get back there soon. But in the meantime, fight we must.

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