Can University of Wisconsin Survive Governor Walker?

The GOP governor is destroying the university system, with a $300 million budget cut and a move to weaken tenure. This UW professor reveals just how far-reaching the damage will be.

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Last night I dreamed my garden was gone. Some animal had come in the night and devoured all the plants, the peas and kale and tomatoes and parsley, eaten down to nubs of stems in the dirt. I remember the feeling of dread and self-reproach: Why hadn’t I stopped this from happening? How could all that work and planning be gone so suddenly?

It’s not hard to figure out what that dream represented: I just finished my eighth year as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, a job that I love, a job that I worked for through four years of undergraduate and nine years of graduate study, and then worked in for another seven grueling years, teaching hundreds of undergraduate students each semester while staying up late most nights writing the book I needed to publish to earn tenure. Many times it seemed impossible, as impossible as the idea that I could tuck a tiny dried pea from a packet bought at the hardware store into plain dirt and, two weeks later, living plants would poke their green noses through its crust.

Since Governor Walker announced his budget with its devastating $300 million cut to the UW system, along with threatened changes to tenure and shared governance, and the deans in my college began implementing preemptive cuts in response, I, like most of my colleagues, have felt alternately frightened and defiant, anxious and invigorated. In February, I helped organize a rally to protest the cuts, on a day that perhaps poetically turned out to be the coldest of the year, so cold that when I spilled hot tea it froze on my sleeve before I could brush it away. Yet, hundreds of people turned out despite the extreme weather conditions—we were bundled in our outrage, and we accomplished our goal of media coverage in the local, state, and national news. Our voices were heard—but, as so often has felt the case here in Wisconsin since the advent of Walker, it didn’t seem to make a difference. It certainly felt that way last week, as the Board of Regents Education Committee—most appointed by Walker—voted not to oppose the move to weaken tenure protections and shared governance, despite many reasoned and impassioned pleas from various groups of faculty to defend us, to defend the university.

I was not one of the faculty members who attended that meeting with their mouths taped shut, though I wholeheartedly support them. I was home, working in my garden, pulling weeds, watering new shoots, searching among the strawberry leaves for the first vivid red. For months, I’ve been saying that my garden is the only thing getting me through. At least when I’m gardening, I know what is happening and what is real. One of the hardest things for many of us about the attack on UW has been the shifting sands, the confusion over what exactly is being changed.

Right now, that confusion largely centers around tenure. It’s entirely unclear what it means that tenure itself is being written out of state law, yet in the very same document new law is being created that lays out a step-by-step guide for how to lay off tenured faculty, not only in cases of just cause or financial emergency, but at any point that an academic program is being modified or redirected—a change that means “tenure” would no longer really be tenure, in terms of providing protection against partisan attacks or the limited job security meant to compensate for lower salaries. No one, from the many experts weighing in in the media to the Board of Regents to the state legislators to the president of the UW system himself, seems to know whether the Regents or individual universities can ignore this new provision and create policy that preserves the protections of tenure, or whether law trumps policy. This is new ground, and no one knows what will happen when it is broken.

What is clear is that this entire enterprise is meant to break us—to break the university system, to break faculty, to break the partnership between education and the state that is at the foundation of democracy. Democracy is predicated on the existence of an informed electorate, one that has access to truth and the education to make sense of those truths. So let’s be clear: the governor and legislature—and the national right-wing machine that backs them—are attacking public education, from Pre-K all the way up to the flagship state research university, not because it is inefficient or costly, not because teachers or faculty are lazy or because we spend too much time researching the “ancient mating habits of whatever.” Those claims can and have been repeatedly debunked by the indisputable fact that the university brings far more money into the state than it receives from the state. Yet those debunkings have not changed the destructive state policy one iota, even when backed by major business leaders, because those truths are not what this is really about. So while I understand why it’s important to keep making those arguments to counter the right-wing disinformation, I woke up this morning struck with a deeper fear and realizing the need for a deeper work.

I’m thinking right now about survival: my own, my colleagues’, my students’, our children’s, our democracy’s. This attack is part of something larger and broader and potentially far more devastating than the loss of tenure—which I admit already feels devastating enough. We are getting down to the bare bones here of what it means to live in this world and to enable others to live, what it means to grow and to learn and to give in a world that does not want us, that is not made for us. What that requires is not as much that we defend what we have as that we create something new.

I don’t know what that new world will look like. Maybe it will mean that tenured faculty spends more time volunteering in local K-12 schools or prisons or homeless shelters and it counts toward our university “service.” Maybe it means we join the union and call a strike and spend our semesters on the picket line instead of the lecture hall. I don’t know, and I am still scared a lot of the time, scared to my bones. And angry. And uncertain. Everything is changing and it is happening so quickly and yet it is still unclear what exactly is happening so it feels like trying to fight an apparition, a ghost.

The most I can do today is to hold on to what I know is real. My garden was not devoured. It is there, green and alive and waiting for me. The strawberries are ripening. Today, I will weed the garden and work on my next book and read the news and stay alive. In times like these, finding joy in my work that I love, in the world that I love, is an act of defiance and of survival. The Board of Regents met today to vote on more policies that are unclear, that are terrifying and yet also might change very little. I will not ignore what is happening but I will not let it overpower me either. I will weed my garden. I will teach my students. I will write my book and people will read it. The work I do, the work we are all doing, matters. It will survive. 


Photo credit: Mike De Sisti


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