AS I WRITE THIS CONCLUSION, Donald Trump has been president of the United States for a month. Betsy DeVos, a person deeply unqualified to work in any educational field, let alone public education, has been confirmed as the secretary of education. Jerry Falwell Jr. is being considered for a task force on higher education. Immigrants, many of whom work and study in U.S. universities, are now subject to exclusion by executive order with almost no elected officials taking counteraction of any kind; we have to settle for their statements. In short, if public education was approaching a crisis state, our new national leadership, in tandem with existing state legislatures, have a clear path to cut, dismantle, and privatize. The notion that public education, and specifically higher education, might serve a purpose beyond dollars is dead. The notion that institutions can serve long-term societal goals is dead.
Ironically, back in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has begun to sound reasonable by comparison. As we approach the release of the next biennial budget, Governor Walker has indicated that he wants to increase funding for both K–12 and the UW System, including his promise of a fully funded 5 percent tuition cut.
Does this sound too good to be true? It is.
First, any increase in funding would merely be a small offset to the massive cuts put in place by Walker himself. Second, these funding promises are attached to new “performance-based” metrics serving to enhance the purely vocational overhaul of our educational institutions as well as prioritizing short-term goals. Third, these promises primarily serve Walker’s looming reelection campaign, as he seeks to distinguish himself from any intraparty challengers in the legislature who make their vocation out of demonizing public education.
And of course, there’s the state legislature, who have been operating with clear intentions that show no indication of shifting. What have they accomplished in the past two years? Here is a short list:
- • Another cut of $250 million to the UW System was made to deliver tax cuts.
- • Tenure was eliminated. (Our system president and Board of Regents would deny this has happened, but “tenure” in the UW exists in name only. Tenure in our system has as much weight as wearing a shirt that says “tenure” on the front; it is purely symbolic.)
- • Shared governance was eliminated to move to a more corporate, “advise the CEO” model. Again, our system president and Board of Regents would deny this, but they refer to governance as “shared” when arriving at desired outcomes, yet evoke executive authority when they fear the process might turn out differently.
- • A new post-tenure review process was imposed that requires faculty evaluation by a single administrator with no required expertise in the relevant field of study. A simple rating of “does not meet expectations” results in remediation and possible dismissal.
- • Instead of investing in our system, legislators have taken on a more pressing issue: free speech “protections” on campus. Well, not exactly. The legislature will soon codify that students can be expelled from school for the oxymoronic offense of “disruptive protests.” Expensive provocateurs on speaking tours now have a right to a captive audience.
- • New regents president John Behling will seek to eliminate the requirement that the UW president or chancellors have academic credentials. Enter the CEO who will “shake things up”: we must have visionless managers at every level, expertise be damned.
These significant changes merely scratch the surface.
Although faculty members are routinely held responsible for the actions of administrators, we have yet another administrative scandal, with one of the UW System’s former chancellors being sued for improper use of funds. Given that the last administrative scandal (cash reserves) resulted in increased administrative power, this does not bode well for faculty and staff throughout the system.
Furthermore, the UW System and its campuses are routinely bullied and threatened about future funding, often in relation to minutia like the content of a specific course, a campus speaker, or demonstrations of empathy for the concerns of a minority group. One state legislator, who has ample time to micromanage the university system, has recently criticized the UW for waging a “war on men” because a campus hosts a forum for men to talk about and discuss the concept of masculinity. Examples like this are endless, as divide-and-conquer strategies are so deeply rooted and difficult to overcome. Another legislator has demanded funding be tied to the number of conservative speakers who are invited to campus events, though any attempt at “balance” would require people to turn over their voting records for verification.
As expected, the UW System is losing faculty and finds itself having to pay more than ever to keep faculty from accepting other offers. How much more? Nine million in a single semester for one campus alone. This doesn’t even account for the number of faculty and staff positions that have been eliminated. Sure, gutting tenure protections plays well with a fanged public, but when employees have accepted lower pay for such protections, it turns out that costs go up when the benefits are removed. We all lose as a result.
I’ll end with a personal story. This year, I decided to go up for promotion to full professor, and I have already cleared all campus hurdles; only approval by the Board of Regents remains (this book will be published after they meet). Full professor is the highest rank in my profession. Way back when I was an undergraduate, I decided I wanted to go as far as I could in the area and career that I love, and I’ve done that. I always thought this would be momentous, that I might, even for a brief moment, receive a dose of respect from colleagues and public alike—when I published my first work as an assistant professor, I received a letter of congratulations from a local legislator. But it’s been, to say the least, anticlimactic.
I almost missed my promotion hearing.
I wasn’t sick or involved in some family emergency. I forgot. With tenure gone in Wisconsin, promotion feels meaningless, an accomplishment that my state, legislators, and own regents are likely to sneer at, if grudgingly accept. Even then, the promotion is even more of a rubber stamp, in that simple “program modification” can strip me of my professional life in the stroke of a pen.
If it hasn’t already, this will be your state soon. All the fights that we thought belong to the future are owned by the present. Without that fight, without our contributions to it, and without new coalitions, the unthinkable will arrive: there will be no public education to serve as a pathway to a brighter future.