ALTHOUGH THE REAL EDUCATION CRISIS IN WISCONSIN is entirely legislative and budget related, you wouldn’t know this. One of the most reliable strategies employed by journalists, paid editorialists, think tankers, legislators, regents, and even our own system president is to make faculty always appear to be the focus of the problem. Wisconsin is in a budget crisis, not a faculty crisis or tenure crisis or mythical “skills gap” crisis. You wouldn’t know that if you followed the in-state coverage of the UW saga—this performance requires that faculty always be the problem, no matter how powerless of a constituency they truly are. This piece is one of many that speaks to this scapegoating.
When debating higher education reform, a clear indicator that genuine economic concerns are a smokescreen for misinformed ideological ones is how fast the word “tenure” emerges in the discussion. For anyone with even basic knowledge of the higher-ed landscape, tenure is about the ten-thousandth item on the list of “problems,” and even then, the problem is not tenure’s existence but its contraction for the purposes of labor exploitation.
As this Scylla is again trying to steer us toward Charybdis, here is a fact sheet I am now posting for the fourth time. I hope this comes in handy if you once again find yourself besieged by Captain Taxpayer, Mr. Business, Harvey VandenFreedom, or FaceTwitter SuperTroll.
Tenure Fact Sheet
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who currently govern the state in which they work: 0%
- • Percentage of active tenured faculty who serve as the system president: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who work as faculty while also serving as the chancellor of their institution: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who serve on boards of regents: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who are asked to contribute their wisdom to the process of what tuition will be: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who give themselves raises: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who, in their abundant free time, currently serve in state legislative bodies: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who, as legislators, voted to cut the budget of the institutions where they work: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who can single-handedly reform state Medicaid costs to free up money for higher education: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who refused to accept federal dollars for health care reform: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who manage and write the state budget: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who assign tax breaks to businesses and individuals: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who turned a projected surplus into a significant budget shortfall: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who are responsible, in any way, for Wisconsin’s current budget crisis: 0%
- • Percentage of tenured faculty who opt to hire expensive consultants instead of using in-house expertise: 0%
More Fun Facts
As current data from the U.S. Department of Education show, as do several other sources, institutions of higher ed are opting for labor exploitation over job security, thus aligning its practice with, well, the globe: in 2011, full-time tenured faculty composed just over 15 percent of instructional staff, down from nearly 30 percent in 1975. So damn that tenured class for . . . shrinking significantly?
The primary culprit for rising costs is a combination of state divestment and a boom in administrative hiring. Given that, it’s not hard to see why someone in the legislature might want to distract from the fact that he champions his “tuition freeze” to mask that state support has dropped over 20 percent in a mere six years, which has then led to tuition increases that exceeded 20 percent.
Surely the tenured kingpin is to blame!
And finally, our central administrators occasionally collaborate in this misconception, and the declining ratio of faculty members per administrator might have something to do with it. According to the Delta Cost Project, in 1990, public research universities had 3.2 faculty/staff positions for every executive/professional staff member; as of 2012, that number had declined to 2.2. At institutions like mine (public bachelor’s colleges), in 1990, that ratio was 4.3 to 1. In 2012, it had declined to 2.5 to 1. Faculty are not the cause of rising costs.
Thanks for listening! Always remember, faculty, who control everything, are also to blame for everything. Be the tenured kingpin you are!
Moses in Bullet Points
The UW saga has made abundantly clear the inadequacy of our centralized leadership model, which prioritizes UW-Madison and the lobbyist/legislative class over the local communities who most rely on the system and who understand its very specific contributions to local communities and economies. This post is one that begins detailing the ineffectiveness of our current model.
We live in a leadership void. And although it is tempting to wax furious on larger levels (the U.S. Senate just voted on whether climate change is “real”), I’ll keep my focus on our capsizing state and its university system.
What is there to say about this drama? Is it a comedy? A tragedy? I’m more inclined to interpret it as performance art about irony. For example, it is amazing to watch people participate in an entirely linguistic process while simultaneously questioning the value of the humanities. It is amazing to watch “Americans for Freedom and Up-Pulled Bootstraps” fetishize authority to the point that words like “boss” and “CEO” feel like catalysts for arousal.
Enter our hero and savior: “flexibility.” As we know, “flexibility” is austerian code for cutting pay, benefits, and jobs. Speaking of performance art . . .
Here’s a question I ask myself every day: why would anyone sitting in our legislature listen to system president Ray Cross? This is not a criticism of Cross (he could be Ronald Reagan) but ultimately a question about meaningful and representational organizational structure. What can antagonistic legislators possibly be thinking when meeting with President Cross beyond, “Oh great, here’s the guy begging for money again! This is so boring. What can we do for fun and liven this up? Make him squirm!”
Here are some choice quotes from Cross’s recent Q&A at UW-Whitewater:
- • On tenure and promotion: “The current concern by legislators at the Capitol focuses on this single issue—you should not have a guaranteed job for life; that is the sound bite logic that is being played,” he said. “Let’s break that down. When you tell the legislators that they really don’t have it like that, they do not see that. They ask, ‘Well, how many tenured faculty have been let go?’ The answer is very few. Then you explain the process of securing tenure, how you get there and the probation process. There has been all kinds of scrutiny and screening before tenure is awarded.” (Note: none of this has anything to do with the budget shortfall, which is the fault of legislators, who, of course, make the budgets. This is a nonmonetary issue. Why is this even a point of discussion? Because faculty must always be front and center to serve as rhetorical punching bags.)
- • On “job creators” fetishizing the ability to fire people: “Cross said some legislators understand the process, yet still say that some faculty should be dismissed due to performance.” (Note: why are faculty, again, the front-and-center topic of discussion for a budget shortfall and cut they have nothing to do with? Why aren’t the budget makers front and center? Leadership! See my previously posted “Tenure Fact Sheet.”)
- • On legislators’ incessant fetishizing of authority and submissive workers: “Number one is that ‘employees should not get to pick their boss,’” he said. “They believe the policy we have for hiring chancellors or executives, which requires a majority of the search committee be composed of faculty, is offensive. That is easy to fix. That is a board policy, not a statute.” (Think about this for a moment, and take note parents and students: your education is meant to teach you submission. In short, why does the UW promote such an “offensive” democratic system?)
- • On the fog of war that many legislators exist in: “Some legislators say that faculty and student input needs to be advisory,” Cross said. “I open to 36.09 and say ‘show me where it is not advisory—because it is advisory.’ I think there is a lack of understanding about what shared governance is and where it needs to go. Part of our job is to help legislators understand that.” (President Cross states the reality: shared governance has always been a performance more akin to playing house. Also, we need to prioritize businesses, which often pay no state taxes, over students, who pay both state taxes and tuition. Check.)
Doesn’t all of this seem so pointless? Is there anything here that speaks to education, aspirations, access, or opportunity? Can you remember the last time anyone asked or cared about what students want? The preceding items dominate the write-up of the Q&A. None of them are budget related. Zero. Is the cut about a real shortfall or about the UW’s “behavior”? It can’t be both. We live in a leadership vacuum where governance is by petty grudge. Let us ask ourselves a few questions:
- • What do you say to a leader/legislator who says we have too many campuses, too many departments, too many everything, while that same person spent most of the last year arguing that we needed a third Walmart inside a ten-mile radius in sprawling Green Bay?
- • How do you engage leaders/legislators who embrace the imaginary vision that faculty have power in the contemporary, corporatized university? How do you talk about education in the face of frothing misconception? To an audience that offers nothing beyond, “But the faculty! Why can’t we fire them or at least micromanage them to death because . . . leadership! Accountability!”
- • How to you dispel the myth of “we need to do a better job of communicating who we are” when the root of the word “university” should successfully convey the impossibility of such a definition. I’ve worked in the UW for thirteen years; even now I’d consider my understanding of “what we do” to be minimal. There is so much going on at one time on any given campus, let alone in the system as a whole, that any definition is simplistic and a disservice. Furthermore, why emphasize the need for a single person to be able to “understand the system”? Good luck, and again, I say that as an insider without such an understanding. Knowledge is an essential economy, whether that economy is financial, cultural, local, global, personal, emotional, artistic, or educational.
- • How do you reach a leader/legislator who boasts of protecting the middle class from tuition hikes while simultaneously voting for Act 10 and Right to Work legislation and is currently pushing the repeal of prevailing wage laws?
- • How do you expect leadership to function in the present when legislators refer to the guiding wisdom and data-driven “bad taste in the mouth” rule from a previous nontroversy? (This refers to the fact that UW campuses kept reserve funds on hand for difficult times. Although this is common “like a business” practice, the legislature acted unaware.)
- • How do you persuade anyone who views knowledge entirely as a vocational subset of work and consumerism? We are broadcasting to students and parents of students everywhere, “Come to us for knowledge so you can be silenced under the all-important boss.” Great. Exactly what I want for my daughters.
- • How do we inhabit a space where traditional and rigid top-down leadership bludgeons their constituents with talk of “change,” “flexibility,” and “being open to new ideas”? (That’s irony over there in the coffin, stake through the heart.)
- • What do you say to leadership that rambles on about quality while that very quality is running out of the door?
- • What do you say to leadership that offers quotes from David Brooks and Thomas Friedman in place of ideas anchored in our real, lived experience? What do you say to this leadership that prioritizes external ideas over internal talent and resources?
- • What kind of leadership anchors its decisions on the latest Rebecca Blank (the Madison chancellor) quote or the latest faculty comment? “Oh, we were concerned about education in Wisconsin, but forget it now, Rebecca Blank said something!” Good lord.
- • Lastly, why do we pretend that a leader/system president can effectively speak with this leading, ideological class when those legislators have no incentive to listen? This is not about President Cross—it is independent of the person who holds that position—but in what scenario is this model even remotely effective rhetorically?
Throughout this year, a year filled with despair, I’ve learned and been reminded of some important things that I believe connect to leadership.
First, the students are the true owners of this university system because they provide the largest portion of its funding via tuition dollars. They are also silenced in proportion to their contribution, and it is no wonder that some legislators are upset that students would want a say in the enterprise they significantly fund. Again, students are the majority stakeholder in an organization that provides them with the least power. Can students sue for control of the system? They deserve it. On my campus I’ve watched students bravely organize, protest, and communicate with legislators in a way that I can confidently say puts UW Central’s leadership to shame. These students, with so much at stake, have decided to mobilize, to “fight,” with their intelligence and passion. Furthermore, when they meet face-to-face with legislators, they stand there as something that UW Central never does: voters. In that moment, legislators cannot simply roll their eyes without some risk. Our system is on the verge of not deserving the wonderful students we serve.
Second, though Ray Cross likes to ask, “How do you think they got that way?” when referencing legislators who want to help the UW, my belief is that the communication from students, parents, community leaders, business leaders, staff, and faculty has had far more of an influence on this process than it is given credit for. Though dispersed and collaborative, it sure looks a lot like real leadership. And I hope that with a 2016 presidential election on the way, the UW remains a state-level ballot-box issue regardless of our bleak budget outcome. These efforts must not be wasted and must make their way into the language of upcoming campaigns for office. Dear students, parents of students, staff, faculty, alumni . . . consider running.
I’ve talked around the elephant in the room: our governor is the model for our leadership vacuum. No decision is about Wisconsin or its citizens anymore. We know this. We are a laboratory for hourly polling services. The UW is drowning in a fiction of flexibilities, efficiencies, nimbleness, and the twenty-first-century global something or other. But the UW is people. Until we have leaders who acknowledge people as people, every meeting, town hall, press release, “listening” session, is nothing but performance.
The leadership vacuum presents itself when all discussion is about everything but the problem of state government, instead focusing on the red herrings of faculty, tenure, governance, some legislator’s bad taste in the mouth, or cash reserves. The problem is not the UW. The problem is the inadequate budget and the architects of our current budget shortfall. If we prize accountability so much, we should then hold the legislature accountable for the budget they created and voted for. To do that, of course, we need accurate information. There is nothing else to talk about. It’s hard to control this outside of our own organization, so I wish UW leadership would embrace this reality instead of indulging the fiction that somehow the composition of search committees is important.
How long can I ramble on about all this nontalk about nonissues? The question should not be, How do we do better next time? Going forward, our many questions should begin with, How can we change the UW’s leadership model to one where our voices actually have meaning?