English professor Richard Grusin says he never expected UW System President Ray Cross to give him such a straight answer when he asked Cross in a public forum this week whether he would resign if he doesn’t manage to ease the pain of Scott Walker’s budget on the university.
“I expected him to deflect the question,” Grusin said in a later interview. Instead, Cross said simply “yes.”
Grusin, who teaches and directs the Center for 21st Century Studies at UW-Milwaukee, said he is hopeful the exchange will give Cross some leverage as Cross negotiates with legislators to reduce $300 million in funding cuts and preserve tenure and shared governance.
That also was his intent, Grusin said, when he earlier penned an open letter — signed by some 500 faculty, staff, students and alumni across the UW System — demanding Cross declare a moratorium on the creation of a public authority to govern the university until a thorough analysis of the model’s efficacy is completed.
Walker wants the UW System converted from a state agency to a quasi-independent public authority by July 2016. That would entail removing tenure and shared governance — which together form the foundation of academic freedom, say proponents — from state statute and transferring those provisions to Board of Regents policy.
“By all accounts (Cross) is working fairly closely with people in the Capitol, and a letter showing strong sentiment across the System might give him some leverage with legislators,” Grusin said last week.
Mike Falbo, president of the Board of Regents, didn’t see Grusin’s advocacy as an effort to assist Cross.
"I think it's an insult to a guy who works hard with all the different constituencies. ... That personal attack is totally inappropriate. It's unfair,” Falbo told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after Wednesday’s forum.
Academic freedom may allow a faculty member to ask for a superior's resignation, Falbo said, "but that freedom should be honored, not abused."
Grusin acknowledged that tenure gives him the security to challenge Cross, but said it is more than that.
At 61, he is in the final decade of his career and his position as director of the Center for 21st Century Studies gives him some visibility, Grusin said. That’s a more secure berth from which to be vocal on this issue than is enjoyed by younger colleagues who view political activism as part of their role as academics, he said.
Grusin said he found himself immersed in politics soon after coming to Wisconsin five years ago, joining protests against Walker’s first budget curtailing collective bargaining rights of most public employees in 2011.
When Walker released his current budget proposal, Grusin spoke out. He stepped up the pace of topical posts on his blog, one of which refers to Cross as “the man who would be king.”
But he is motivated by issues larger than the latest state budget round, Grusin said.
“I believe the university is one the great institutions of America, for educating people, for pursuing questions wherever they may go, to think, write and read about things that have no direct, practical or economic consequence,” he said.
“What we are seeing in our society is an assault on that notion," he said, "the idea that intellectual expertise, thought, research are worth teaching, worth cherishing — even if no immediate practical consequence."
Grusin said that to date, Cross’ reassurances over the future of the University of Wisconsin have rung hollow. Saying that the university will be stronger for the changes outlined in the budget doesn’t work with audiences that know better, he said, and Cross’ statements in support of tenure and shared governance and against the funding cuts have been less than convincing.
Assurances have to be balanced with acknowledgement of how much is at stake, Grusin argued.
“This is what Bill Clinton was good at — ‘I feel your pain’ — I think that is what has been lacking here," he said. "People do not see that the (UW) leaders feel their pain.”
Grusin said Cross may have replied as he did to try to fill in that missing sense of urgency.
“By saying yes, ‘I will put my job on the line,’ he was trying to communicate to us his sincerity," he said.
It’s not clear yet whether he succeeded, Grusin said.