When I was seventeen, I arrived at the SUNY Buffalo campus as a hopeful but underprepared student from a public high school with a violent reputation. My first attempt at the SAT resulted in a sub-1000 score. I had no idea what I wanted to study, what I cared for by way of a career, or what students did in an English department. SUNY Buffalo accepted me because they believed in Buffalo kids and in educating the people of their state. I received a Pell Grant and other need-based financial aid, or else I would not have been able to attend. Tuition was less than a thousand dollars.
Eventually I wandered into an English department and asked for directions from a disheveled man named Robert Creeley, who sent me to someone named Leslie Fiedler, who said I needed to go downstairs to find Carl Dennis and Susan Howe. All of these people were tenured, well-paid, supported state employees who set me on a path toward a meaningful life and career. Looking back now, this all feels like an accident, serendipity at its most immaculate.
But it was no accident. It was public education, exactly as designed by the generations before, waiting and working for me.
Public education completely saved and changed my life, and all I had to do was be alive and show up. I did not have “skin in the game” beyond my mother paying taxes (which should be skin enough). Nobody badgered me about “the needs of business” and “time to degree” or offered bizarre phrases like “from cradle to career.” No one pushed me to work sixty hours a week and then take my education “at my own pace” while chained to a screen and fatigue. Public education cleared a space for me and allowed me to inhabit that area with all the glory of my imperfection.
I floundered for two years, righted my ship, and grew into the student who graduated with honors from the English program. Dr. Barbara Bono, mistress of Shakespeare, single-handedly made me believe in myself and that I could go on with my studies past a bachelor’s degree. Again, I was allowed this just because I was there, as a breathing person, with interests. I had not yet earned anything.
I am not that old, but I can say I have achieved some positive accomplishment with my life (I hope to do more). I have taught in high school and higher education for more than twenty years. I can see results. Because teaching is a difficult profession, even just considering pedagogy alone, there were many growing pains along the way. But I have helped people. I have given back beyond the public’s initial investment in providing me with opportunity.
Most of the effects of my public education are beyond assessment, and all of them came at minimal expense to the state. Public education, and public higher education, is not only a great achievement but also one of the most significant human achievements in recorded history. Across our nation and generations of citizens, versions of the story I have detailed here are too many to count.
I now live in Green Bay and work at a four-year, comprehensive university that is part of the University of Wisconsin System. Although I was not born here, I consider my current life a homecoming: I work for a modest salary to help deliver public education to the state’s citizens, many of whom are first-generation college students. My hope is that all my students will achieve success, personally and professionally, and that their education, a public good, will help them to advance and benefit our state and beyond in ways that show that the initial expense is a small investment with future rewards that exceed calculation. This, after all, is what I was privileged enough to have.
But to work for the state is not to agree with the state, and my conceptions of a shared common good are evaporating into illusion. I know now that there are no state university systems, only state legislatures. There are no laws, only lawmakers. The sooner we learn and accept this, the sooner we can go about fighting for and restoring one of America’s most moral and vital institutions.
Currently, in Wisconsin, the state’s legislature has traveled far down the road toward its destination of dismantling and reshaping public education—cuts in state support exceeded half a billion dollars in the last two budget cycles alone. Our legislature envisions an institution that no longer serves the state and its citizen students, instead opting for a corporatized agenda that caters entirely to the immediate “needs of business,” a minimal curricular vision whose highest bar is “practicality” and “competence,” and the whims of grudge-holding legislators who fear a well-educated electorate that might prioritize the long view and critical thought on any issue.
However, on the local level, we are easily caught up in distracting questions: why doesn’t the University of Wisconsin System president do something? Even with a half-million-dollar salary, he is both powerless and complicit, and complaining about his inaction is like complaining about the Queen of England. Why doesn’t the state’s Board of Regents do something? They are an extension of the legislature, appointed by a governor, Scott Walker, who once rescinded a student regent’s appointment upon discovering he had signed a recall petition. Why don’t individual chancellors stand and fight? They are also powerless, serving at the whim of the system president, who views all students, faculty, and staff as rhetorical pieces in the great lobbying chess match. In short, all views, proposals, and calls for action that exist outside of the state legislature are purely rhetorical and treated as such.
The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can focus our means on the appropriate, results-producing ends. The system president, faculty, staff, students: none of these people are to blame for state divestment in public higher education and concurrent attacks on academic freedom and job security. This has been legislated in Wisconsin, and if it has not already, all of this will soon be coming to your state: just ask Louisiana, Illinois, North Carolina, and Kansas, where, as I write this, institutions dedicated to public education are being shuttered.
The writing that follows is, in edited form, pulled from blog posts, written over a period of about two years, that chronicle the ongoing attacks on the UW System. As of July 2017, here is where we stand: staff have been laid off; faculty lines have been eliminated; UW-Madison’s ranking as a research institution has fallen; faculty have seen their earned property right—tenure—rendered meaningless; shared governance has been eliminated and replaced with an “advise the CEO” model; faculty senates and staff across the system have voted “no confidence” in both the system president and the Board of Regents; and revenue projections continue to drop, feeding the bottomless and cruel maw of austerity. These are all features of our corporate conservative politics, not bugs.
What can recent events involving higher education in Wisconsin teach the nation? What can you, a reader in Ohio or Arizona, learn from the harbinger of the badger state? What can an attack on “the Wisconsin Idea” signal about the growing attacks on an American idea? The lessons are legion. In many ways, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin has served as a laboratory for the nation’s direction, and with the election of Donald Trump and the emergence of widespread one-party rule, the experiment is frothing to go national.
The first signs of this ideology’s expansion have not been subtle. At the opening of 2017, both Iowa and Missouri drafted legislation proposing the elimination of tenure in their universities. Expect these trends to expand to a university near you. Anger alone will not stop the damage, and neither will protests, Facebook, or letters to editors. The only way to protect public higher education is by making it a relevant and focal political issue and voting appropriately. More importantly, people involved with public education must run for, and win, public office. This is the only road, because all roads lead to the legislature and policy.
This book provides a Wisconsin story that serves as a national warning. Supporting public education and its immense good is an easy thing to do. Let us try to remember the infinite rewards within our reach for what seems like such minimal effort and expense. If that is not practical, then I don’t know what is. It is more than practical; it is miraculous.