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.


About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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2 Responses to In Search of Obliterated Time

  1. Nicole says:

    I was hoping to read your thoughts on the Justine Kramer debacle!


    • Joel Berkowitz says:

      Thank you for your interest. I thought about it, but as you can see, the blog has been dormant for awhile; it’s hard to find the time to comment meaningfully here and attend to everything else I have to do.


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