AUSTERITY MEASURES, and the language promoting them (“flexibility,” “efficiency,” “accountability,” “run like a business”), deliberately erase the human narratives affected by the actions of legislators and special interests—all of those terms essentially serve as a dehumanizing cover for firing people and treating them poorly. The following posts were an effort to remind readers that massive cuts to higher education would cost jobs, drive people away, and drain our local communities of vital citizens. This anti-intellectualism, disguised as “fiscal responsibility,” is destabilizing quality public education across the country.
As I sit down to write this, I know it could be ten thousand words of sadness. I will limit myself.
Making news these days are the proposed buyouts University of Wisconsin campuses are offering to employees fifty-five and older; the buyouts are not automatic, as you must apply and be approved. But the buyouts are not a good deal, just as much of everything else is not a good deal. The Green Bay Press Gazette has a piece today on buyout offers, and I know and work with the people quoted. Steve Meyer, one of the most respected and visible professors on our campus, said, “No way I am going to take them up on their offer. I am too far away from retirement to take it.” He’s right not to treat his career like a cheap suit; it is a sad offer among other sad offers. Also, the man is fifty-six. Fifty-six is young! (We can discuss ageism at another time.) Most importantly, if Steve did accept the offer, it would be a tremendous loss to our students, seeing the departure of yet another of our science faculty. This is a person we want to encourage to go away, even while fetishizing support for STEM fields?
But this isn’t about buyouts. It is about our chronic hemorrhaging of talent. When you work at a campus like mine, UW–Green Bay, losing even one person to another job can be crippling; it often means, in some cases, that you are losing half or all of a popular program. I have heard people, and one legislator in particular, say that the “loss of talent” argument is not real. Make no mistake: the poachers are here. They have been here for years, as the post–Act 10 (or post collective bargaining) climate in Wisconsin has seen an increase in the departure of thriving, post-tenure professors.
The white noise hums, “We need you to be more like a business!” Is this what businesses do? Do successful businesses let their talent leave without so much as lifting a finger, all while the students dependent on that knowledge and skill stand by helplessly?
I want to make one point clear: this doesn’t only matter in high-profile instances, such as those involving medical researchers. It matters just as much on the smaller campuses, in the teaching-and-learning trenches. Let me use my own campus as an example and name names; let me show you what we’ve lost and still stand to lose, and then apply this to your own circumstances and neighborhoods. Then let someone in the Wisconsin state legislature and UW Central show us that they care.
For some context, the undergraduate population at UW–Green Bay is largely female. Our most notable sports team is the women’s basketball squad, annual powerhouse and future national champions. On our campus, it is vital that we have women in leadership, teaching, and administrative roles.
With that in mind, let me introduce you to Dr. Angela Bauer. She is a biologist, a recognized teacher, and an expert in endocrinology and has demonstrated teaching excellence in both face-to-face and online environments. She chaired UW–Green Bay’s biology department, and I’ll shorthand this point by saying that a woman chairing a science department on our campus provides our students with an essential role model.
Here’s another fact about Professor Bauer: she used to work at UW–Green Bay. She doesn’t anymore.
Professor Bauer left in 2012 to become the chair of a biology department in North Carolina. We offered her almost nothing to stay. Our counter offer was an embarrassment. In the short time I worked with Dr. Bauer, what struck me most was how much she cared about teaching and how hard she worked at the craft. She rolled up her sleeves every day. She participated in teaching scholars projects to improve her students’ learning. She was great at her job. She is great at her job, just not in Wisconsin.
Let me introduce you to Professor Aeron Haynie. I had the pleasure of working alongside Professor Haynie in the English department at UW–Green Bay. She was a mentor to me, and on the occasions I observed her classroom teaching, I felt I was entering a robust, participatory environment where each student was deeply invested in her learning. Dr. Haynie’s teaching knowledge, and performance, helped me to reinvent myself pedagogically. Dr. Haynie, because of her passion for teaching, took over UW–Green Bay’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and revitalized it. She also coedited an incredibly important book about teaching practice. At a time when the legislative gallery is calling for more and better teaching, Professor Haynie is the superlative example of this.
Here’s another fact about Professor Haynie: she no longer works at UW–Green Bay.
In 2012 she received an unmatchable offer to direct the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of New Mexico; it is unmatchable because, outside of Madison, the UW System lags significantly in competitive salaries. She left our teaching center, which we are likely downsizing because of the current budget travesty, to go to another university, where she trains teachers in the most important facet of their careers. Again, at a time when legislators incessantly harp about teaching, we let an actual teaching professional and scholar walk away. There are students on our campus who worked with Professor Haynie who still talk about her and lament her absence. We say teaching is important. We say we want more, more, more—we just don’t want to pay for it. Is this how we behave “more like a business”?
Let me introduce you to Professor Kim Nielsen, a history professor and expert in disability studies. In fact, she wrote A Disability History of the United States. What relevance could knowledge about disability have in contemporary work and technological environments? I wonder if there are people who are hired and paid very well to work in such areas. Professor Nielsen is, among other things, a full professor, a Fulbright Scholar, a National Endowment for the Humanities winner, and the author of five books.
Here’s another fact about Professor Nielsen: she no longer works at UW–Green Bay.
Here is the last line of Professor Nielsen’s current work bio: “She recently arrived at the University of Toledo after fourteen years at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.” Yes, Professor Nielsen left in 2011, and as was the case in the other instances described, we did almost nothing to keep her here. We barely tried. The UW System had no use for her.
I’ve not even mentioned that we lost three members of our community. People who paid taxes, spent income, and contributed to the culture and fabric of the Green Bay area and of Wisconsin as a whole.
Keep in mind, these offers that out-of-state schools are making to UW faculty: they are overly generous when compared to the counter offers received. When you care about nothing but cuts, the UW is happy to shed talent; austerity cannot imagine another outcome. Another faculty member lost brings a sigh of relief from central offices, who can recoup the salary and fringe costs, and subsequently eliminate the faculty line, all while saying “no one lost a job!” Hardly. The people who lost the opportunity to apply for the vacant position lost that job.
The UW System is in trouble. It is, and has been, losing talent at a growing rate. I asked an administrator on our campus for figures and confirmed that the loss of tenured faculty is indeed on the rise. In her e-mail to me, she wrote, “Losing people post tenure is relatively rare and definitely seems to be trending upward.” I have only mentioned three losses here but could extend this list to include at least fifteen others since 2011. I maintain a spreadsheet. Fifteen people in whom we invested significant time and funds. We are a small campus.
So what about today? What about for this coming year? The news gets worse.
Two tenured faculty members were just poached by a school in New York State. I know the details of the offer. If I told you what they are getting versus what they have now, you would gasp, laugh, then ask, “How do you keep anyone?”
One of the professors is in the arts and works in administration. She (we are losing another important female employee) is superior at her job, especially when connecting with the community. I’m sure New York will benefit from her work. The other is a communications professor who does important work in conflict resolution (who could possibly need such a skill?); he volunteered his services regularly at a conflict resolution center in Green Bay. I’m sure New York State will treat him well. Good-bye, Professors Mokren and Garcia—your students, colleagues, communities, and friends will miss you dearly.
Finally, there is Professor X. I’m not allowed to say anything specific about this because nothing is official. Professor X is my colleague. He is also about to be poached by a school that has had previous success in taking UW–Green Bay talent. Word gets around. Let me say a few words about Professor X: he’s a national expert in his field; he’s one of our campus’s best and most popular teachers; his new book was just published; and he is irreplaceable in terms of teaching, research, and service to both the institution and the community. For what he is paid, he is an absolute bargain. If Professor X leaves, we will likely lose his position—a huge blow to our thriving department—because the position description doesn’t include the words “engineering” or “business.”
Let me state plainly the worst part of all this: Professor X wants to stay in Wisconsin. He told me this, even though the offer he has is yet another that makes you weep with how noncompetitive we are outside of Madison and business schools. Professor X said to me directly, “I’m looking for any reason to stay. Any counteroffer at all.”
Our interim provost declined to make a counter offer. Nothing. Not ten dollars. In short, “just go.” This is malpractice.
I could go on. Maybe about the female political science professor who left for a job in Ohio after her second year. Maybe I’ll list the names of other people on the market or who have been contacted by head hunters. If I were an administrator in another state, here’s the reality: I could offer almost any UW faculty member a deal that is worse than what the state’s current faculty have but that would seem nothing short of heaven to the member of the UW. Poachers don’t even have to try.
The pain doesn’t end here.
It costs money to search for faculty. It also costs significant work hours. For example, I chaired a faculty search last year where I logged more than two hundred hours of work for not an extra cent of pay (shared governance is cheap, as former UW employee Sara Goldrick-Rab has explained). So, in addition to the monetary costs of conducting a national/international search, which we are required to do, you are asking faculty/staff to take on significant additional hours, for no additional pay, that draw them away from their more primary duties, like teaching. Yes, conducting searches is a welcome part of the job, until those searches become frequent and you find yourself searching for the same position twice in three years because you could not retain the original hire. High faculty turnover hurts the institution not only in terms of quality but also financially.
The following phrase is being uttered quite a bit in UW search meetings these days: “Do you think we can keep this person?”
All of this, added to the larger picture, has been devastating on morale. This is my fourteenth year in the University of Wisconsin System. I have never seen faculty and staff morale lower than it is now. People are working under significant mental strain, struggling to focus and perform while their jobs and worth are in question. Many have finally accepted that, as employees, our state-level bosses do not value us. When your value is under constant attack, doubt creeps into your own self-evaluation. This has mental and emotional effects. I’m not being dramatic when I say that tears have not been uncommon.
We are trying to buy people out of their contracts while we are losing people to other jobs. We are telling people of incredible value that they are no longer wanted or that we have nothing to offer to keep them.
Everything I’ve written here applies to the majority of UW System campuses. Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions, and the working conditions are crumbling.
The Long, Unnecessary Good-bye
This post continues the story introduced previously, where we learn the fate of one “Professor X.”
Deliberate legislative and ideological malpractice is costing us friends, neighbors, colleagues, public servants, taxpayers, and the type of good, hardworking people everyone should support, regardless of political affiliation.
Below is a message sent yesterday by one of my colleagues at UW–Green Bay. This person is one of the most dedicated and respected people on our campus. As rumors have spread that this person might depart because of the toxic political climate, I have seen more than one student weep; others have expressed outrage that a mentor so important to them would be chased away from a university system that was once truly special. They say, “This can’t be real.”
Over the years, this colleague and I have had many students in common; I have seen, up close, the significant effect this colleague has had on their thinking, reading, writing, curiosity, engagement, confidence, expression, and overall personality. Frankly, there are students who cannot imagine their educations without this person. I understand why. I cannot imagine working in a space with such a glaring, self-inflicted void.
When talking about “star faculty” leaving the University of Wisconsin System, there are many misconceptions. Let me slay a few of those quickly and unequivocally:
“Star faculty” and staff do not congregate solely in Madison; they are abundant throughout the system. They are not rare in the UW; they are plentiful. Whereas schools like Madison, and maybe Milwaukee, have more at their disposal to retain such faculty and staff, the other comprehensive and two-year campuses do not. In many ways, campuses outside of Madison are more exposed because depleted resources neutralize viable counter offers. Poachers know this. They are here now, and “plentiful,” the description I used above for high-quality faculty, may soon no longer apply. Amazing faculty and staff will remain, but the losses are deeply felt and negatively affect our mission and duty to our students.
“Well if they can get more money, they should go!” How naive. To almost everyone I know in the UW, quality of life is far more important than salary: what is at stake here far exceeds economics. Our legislature is actively hostile to, and disparaging of, public employees, and the UW has been front and center of late. There are three other new departures to list from my campus—in all cases, it is more than money and job security that are the cause; the open hostility of our state’s leadership is a more significant factor than ever. More than one faculty/staff member has said to me, “I just can’t stay where I’m despised. I can’t have my children hear people talk about me this way.” I get it. I have two daughters. It’s a surreal moment when your eight-year-old asks, “Why does Governor Walker hate schools and teachers so much?”
So here is the letter. They are a real person’s words, experience, and pain. To hear them is to hurt, especially given how easily all of this could have been avoided via governance that didn’t prioritize grudges and division.
Most of you know that this e-mail has been a long time coming, but that hasn’t made it any easier to write. It’s been something of an open secret for a while that I’ve been offered the position of Chair of English at High Point University, and I’m writing to let all of you know that I’ve accepted that position. I will be submitting my letter of resignation from UW–Green Bay later this week, and I’ll be moving to North Carolina in August.
When I came to Green Bay thirteen years ago, I never dreamed I would ever leave. Wisconsin has been and always will be home to me. School and jobs have taken me away several times, but I’ve always seemed to end up back here. I’ve done the math, and it turns out that I’ve lived thirty-four of my forty-four years in this state. Before the passage of Act 10, there was no way on earth I would ever have considered applying for another job. This year I applied for jobs mostly to hedge my bets against possible disaster, and as you all know, since I applied, that disaster has arrived. As a proud graduate of the system’s flagship institution, this was and is the ideal job for me, but it has become very difficult to watch the dismantling of the system and the state that I love, especially since my livelihood depends on them. Those of you who know me best know how incredibly painful it is for both me and my family to leave, but I simply cannot afford to deprive myself and my family of this opportunity for a brighter future.
Over the past couple months, I’ve winced as people in my position have been described as “defectors.” That description is appropriate in one sense, since what we are now engaged in is nothing less than a war for the future of public higher education (and particularly the kind we in the humanities and the liberal arts value) in this state. I hope all of you will realize that although I am leaving the system and the state, I am no defector in that war: I am on no side but yours. While even a pessimist like me can see that the political climate in Wisconsin is bound to change for the better sometime soon, I’m afraid that some of the changes that are being made to what we all do for a living are irreversible. The only thing that encourages me is that I know what capable and determined advocates remain among UW faculty to fight to mitigate the damage, all of you among them.
I cannot imagine ever working with a better group of colleagues than I have had the pleasure to work with in my thirteen years at UW–Green Bay. I admire you all enormously, and I am honored to call all of you both my colleagues and my friends. Given its size and its incredibly diverse faculty, [the Humanistic Studies Department] should never have worked, but in the time I’ve been here it has worked spectacularly. In fact, it is the most functional department I have ever been in or around. That is due largely to the almost miraculously collegial atmosphere we’ve managed to establish. And the unique interdisciplinary education in the humanities that we have managed to provide for our students is something to be proud of and very much worth fighting for. Even though the prospect of living in Wisconsin helped to entice me, the most important reason I came here was the opportunity to work in such an environment. I desperately hope you can manage to preserve it in some form.
Although I am leaving, I plan to be a frequent visitor, at least in the coming year. I hope I will get a chance to see all of you at some point during those trips. In the meantime, please know that I wish nothing but the best for all of you and for this institution. In this case, the cliché that the decision to leave was the hardest one I’ve ever had to make happens to be true. The way my life has gone, the chances seem pretty good that I’ll be back someday. I know you’ll all do your best to save this place while I’m gone.
There it is. Good-bye to a neighbor, a taxpayer, a homeowner, a consumer, a Wisconsin vacationer, and a wonderful family. Why would we want any of those living in Wisconsin, and specifically Green Bay?
I will also add this: the constant bullying of this state of its own employees is going to separate this family for a year.
My soon-to-be ex-colleague will move on alone for the year to the new job, while the remainder of the family stays so their children can finish school. Think about that. We are talking about a person who has given a significant portion of his life to do outstanding work for this state; a person who just earned the distinguished rank of full professor at a pay rate that stands at half of what might be earned somewhere else; a person who wanted to stay here and looked for any reason at all to do so. How did the legislature respond? Your accomplishments mean nothing, and we are now going to make the tenure status you earned meaningless. Have fun spending a year away from your family.
How can Wisconsinites stand by and watch their neighbors be treated so shabbily? My colleague didn’t. As an educator, this person helped Wisconsin citizens, many of them first-generation college students, advance in their lives and move beyond any barriers that held them back. Students who worked with this person knew they were valued; they were respected.
What’s Old Is New
As our state legislature, in cooperation with our Board of Regents and system president, dismantle the earned property right in the form of tenure protections, explicitly for the purpose of laying off tenured faculty, there has of course been no move to lessen the workload required by the tenure process. In fact, the opposite is happening: as pay, benefits, and earned job security decrease, faculty responsibility increases under the austerity slogan “do more with less.” While UW faculty must dedicate years of their lives and work to earning tenure, it can now all be wiped away at a whim, hence the broad reasoning of “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” I have a front row seat to this in a way that exceeds my own experience, as my wife and I are professors in the same department. This piece is a reflection on the day my wife began the process of “going up” for the rank of full professor.
As I sit down to write this quick post, my wife is driving to her unit-level review for the rank of full professor. This meeting should be entirely celebratory. The gods and heroes demand it.
As someone who has seen her entire career unfold up close, I can say with ample support that the UW is lucky to have her, our campus is lucky to have her, and she has worked tirelessly for fifteen years to get to this point. Yes, if she worked in a different state at a different campus she would make 20K more per year (which adds up to about 300K in lost revenue and counting), but UW–Green Bay is a special place. This is not hyperbole. The students, staff, faculty, and alumni are a treasure. I consider myself lucky to work there as well, not because “I’m just happy to have a job” but because of the place and spirit and intention that extends all the way back to the university’s founding by a bunch of crazy people with a crazy dream.
She’s probably just driving over the Leo Frigo Bridge right now, and her meeting begins in ten minutes. And so my message to the Board of Regents, Wisconsin legislators, and UW Central and President Ray Cross is, I wish that she could walk into this moment of tremendous accomplishment and leave with more than self-satisfaction.
You see, what she is going through today is essentially post-tenure review (that thing that legislators pretend doesn’t exist)—that’s what the march from assistant to associate to full professor is: another lengthy, regular demonstration of superlative accomplishment. So why do the Board of Regents and legislators keep saying that post-tenure review is something we don’t have but desperately need? Hint: The goal is not really post-tenure review. The goal is an overdetermined process for shedding salary costs.
As my wife is surely pulling in to the campus parking lot at this point (she tends to run late, or at least cut close all her travels—she stole my coffee as she was leaving), let me point to a few other things my wife (and others) have had to do since receiving tenure: I have watched her put hours into gathering documents for merit reviews knowing full well there was no money to reward that merit. Tell me again how we want to reward high performers. Tell me again how good “résumé-based” systems of application are: my wife has résumé for days, yet, outside of her campus, has been repeatedly told that her most important ability is her ability to be fired. Sound familiar? This is Wisconsin. This is America.
So, Board of Regents, President Cross, skeptical legislators, I am not convinced that you care, but let me give you a look into accomplishment as we hit 8:59 and the committee in the meeting room is saying hello, maybe commenting on today’s glum weather, and hopefully drinking coffee from steaming mugs. For all the false complaints that achieving tenure leads to poor performance, my wife gave birth to both of our children after she was tenured. She only got better at her job. I watched her pump breast milk in her office while preparing for class. I watched her win the campus’s most prestigious teaching award on virtually no sleep. I watched her struggle with the realization that minimum sixty-hour workweeks take her away from her family. I watched her build a nationally recognized, student-run arts journal with her own hands while simultaneously providing students with important training for the workforce (ask them; they’ll tell you). I’ve watched her develop new curriculum over and over and over. Her area of specialty is now the most popular emphasis in our department. Just yesterday, a successful young professional returned to the UW–Green Bay campus to give a presentation to our students. Not only was the presentation inspiring and a huge success but I’ll take a moment to point out that my wife played an instrumental role in this person’s march toward a career. That’s what she does. Every day. That’s what we do in the UW as public servants. Every day.
It’s 9:15. In a room somewhere on campus a group of highly accomplished people are celebrating my wife’s accomplishments. None of those people are regents, a system president, or legislators.
Stop the circus and the smoke. There is no hollower word in our vocabulary today than “advisory.” Our budget debacle and subsequent actions are sincerity’s discarded husk. None of this is about quality, about rewarding performance, and insert other platitudes here. It’s about shedding people, bringing them lower, regardless of rank and accomplishment. It’s about the sickening glee taken in the mere idea of shuttering programs and campuses, and when you hear talk of such plans already moving into the open, it’s clear that tenure “reformation” is nothing but deformation. The point is not to reward performance; the point is to ignore it. Stop pretending that there’s disagreement about what tenure is, or that this is all about an update that “brings us into line” with peers just as unmoored as we are now. When lost, dead reckonings take skill and courage.
It would be nice if my wife (9:22 now—they are surely carrying her around the room in the fashion of a Roman triumph) could accept all of this as more than a personal accomplishment. Shock: professional accomplishments are supposed to be professional. The state of Wisconsin is her boss, so treat her as a professional and reward her for her work. It would be nice if this peak, arrived at after over twenty years of study, training, and work, could be realized in a rank with actual meaning rather than wiped away in the great leveling that is so obvious to everyone with skin. You can say a lot of things about UW faculty and staff regarding issues like tenure, but I know this—at least we’re honest about it.
It’s 9:40. Obviously, the meeting is still going on. They will need until at least noon to cover a mere micron of her body of work. (A bard is plucking strings, moving through the epic lineage.)
President Cross, you should call her in her office and congratulate her later. (Even though this meeting today is only the first step.) After all, current post-tenure review exceeds the boundaries of one meeting or layer of approval. If anything, we are an overdetermined bunch already. She would like to hear from you. I like to think the best of people, so I’m opening myself to the possibility that all support and encouragement must be kept inside, spoken in private, so as not to antagonize testy legislators. I get it. In this case, no one else will be listening. Knowing my wife like I do, any praise or words of encouragement will be appreciated.
My wife would never write something like I’m writing now (9:50: they are feeding her grapes and preparing a hecatomb)—she has too much class. I, however, have no class, so let me point out one big difference between my wife and the assembled group of people who are drafting policy to render her accomplishments meaningless beyond personal satisfaction:
She can do your jobs; you can’t do hers.