Sara Goldrick-Rab does not shy away from controversy. Being direct, she says, is a proud family tradition.
"I am an East Coast Jewish woman through and through, and that's my identity," says Goldrick-Rab, who grew up in Fairfax, Va., in suburban Washington, D.C. "My family has a long tradition of standing up for people who don't have a voice. I was taught to be outspoken and forthright."
Even when biting her tongue might be advisable.
The assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology is the most outspoken faculty critic of Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to award UW-Madison some long sought freedoms from state oversight by granting it public authority status and breaking it away from the rest of the UW System. Chancellor Biddy Martin is pushing hard for this split, an issue that has divided many smart folks both on campus and across the state.
Goldrick-Rab is especially concerned how this new proposal will affect issues of access and affordability to UW-Madison for low- and middle-income students. She has pointedly questioned Martin at faculty senate meetings, and blogged and tweeted her opposition to the plan — all the while trying to earn tenure.
In her award-winning The Education Optimists blog — which she co-writes with husband Liam Goldrick, an education policy analyst — she recently headlined a post, "Call off Biddy and Her Goons." In that entry, she ripped the Badger Advocates, a privately funded lobbying group devoted to advancing Martin's vision for UW-Madison.
"There are lots of people who say to me, 'Sara, shut up,' admits Goldrick-Rab.
That outspoken nature, however, hasn't derailed her career. Goldrick-Rab's department backed her bid for tenure earlier this spring before a division committee unanimously approved her tenure in mid-April. The dean, provost, chancellor and Board of Regents have yet to sign off, but garnering those signatures is generally viewed as a formality.
"A number of people have told me that virtually everything I've done so far is inadvisable — from having two babies on the tenure track, to starting a blog, to blogging nationally, to taking positions that oppose things that my administration has done," she says. "I've been told over and over that the things I was doing were risky, and my general thought was that if I do the work, and I do it well, I should earn it. So I feel like I earned tenure."
The Capital Times sat down with Goldrick-Rab to get her thoughts on a range of topics, including the proposal to break UW-Madison away from the UW System, which Martin is calling the New Badger Partnership. Following is an edited transcript:
Cap Times: Your blog is called The Education Optimists. Recently, at least, wouldn't a better name be The Education Pessimists?
Sara Goldrick-Rab: You know what? (laughing) Somebody else said that, too. I don't agree with that. We're not pessimists. Actually, if anything, you could call us the utopians. My husband and I agree on this issue. We want to make sure (the New Badger Partnership) doesn't happen so that good things can happen for the university in the future.
CT: After earning your Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, how did you end up at UW-Madison?
SGR: Actually, I was never sure I wanted to be a professor. In fact, I spent most of graduate school saying I was not going to be a professor, I was going to be an applied researcher at a research shop in New York or Washington. I didn't want to be an academic because I didn't want to be in an ivory tower. I really wanted to make a difference and I really wanted to engage with policy, with students. Then I saw Wisconsin was looking for someone who did higher education policy but who was trained in something like sociology. I deleted the email. I told myself I'd never get that job. That's Wisconsin. The sociology department and education school are both very highly ranked. But within two days 10 different people had sent me the posting and they all said, "That's your job" So I threw my hat in the ring, got an interview and was offered the job in 2004. And I thought, "Wow, can I really leave west Philadelphia for Wisconsin?"
CT: But you came.
SGR: I was looking for a job where I could make a difference, and I thought this was a climate and place in which there was a real chance for that. You're five times more likely to move out of poverty if you have a college education. We have a state where the deindustrialization and the death of agriculture have really hurt people. So this is a place where there is a lot of room for growth in people's lives and the lives of their kids. If I could help us to grow the proportion of people in this state who get to experience post-secondary education at any level, anywhere, I'll be proud of that. If I'm not mentioned in the media for a year and I don't blog, I'll still be happy if I manage to make that difference.
CT: The governor's budget proposal contains $250 million in cuts for the UW System over the next two years, half of which are to be absorbed by UW-Madison. If these cuts are coming, why wouldn't you want some freedoms and flexibilities from state oversight to deal with this mess?
SGR: Well, I think we were handed a false dichotomy — either back the New Badger Partnership or something really bad is going to happen. That's an extremely common policy tactic. It's a political maneuver. We need a very serious discussion about this topic, and that discussion has not occurred among all relevant constituencies. That doesn't simply mean Sara wasn't at the table so she isn't happy. I can safely say that higher education policy experts both within and from outside UW-Madison have offered assistance and expertise but have not been engaged in this conversation.
CT: At a Faculty Senate meeting in March you expressed concerns about UW-Madison remaining attainable for lower- and middle-income students if the university is granted public authority status. The chancellor has said need-based aid is a priority of hers, but I know you're concerned that some of these students will see the "sticker price" of going to UW-Madison and assume they can't possibly afford to go there. The chancellor said at that meeting she'd count on experts like yourself to help her devise plans to make it clear that need-based aid was available and that UW-Madison would remain affordable. Did you ever hear back from the chancellor seeking your advice?
SGR: No. No. What she said that day is what she said to me in the spring of 2009 when she proposed the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates (which charges a tuition surcharge for UW-Madison students above and beyond what the Board of Regents sets). And to her credit, she invited me to lunch in the spring of 2009 and we had a one-on-one and she asked me to articulate my concerns. She offered me at that time the chance to help her design a sticker shock campaign and the chance to study one. Following that I submitted to her several ideas via email and I never received a response. The issue was dropped. Since that time she has not reached out to me.
CT: Even though Martin came to Madison from Cornell of the Ivy League, she has humble roots. She was the first in her family to attend college. Because of this, I tend to believe her when she says keeping college affordable for lower- and middle-income students is important to her.
SGR: I love that we have a leader who is first in her family to go to college. But just because one is something like that, we can never assume they are representative of, or completely knowledgeable about, all of the relevant issues affecting that group. She is a first-generation student but she is not a scholar of first-generation students and the policies that affect them. We have this problem in education broadly. Many people have children who went to school and see themselves as experts on education because they, themselves, went to school and their kids did, too. This is the problem we have here; just because you work in higher education or attend college doesn't make you an expert. Some of us spend our whole lives thinking and reading about these things.
CT: If UW-Madison and everyone else within the UW System isn't granted some freedoms from state oversight, how do you suggest these institutions absorb the impending budget cuts?
SGR: I really think that they need to get together a real shared governance committee that is tasked with coming up with a set of serious proposals. Then bring those ideas to the relevant bodies for votes and start taking action. Should our No. 1 priority be research? I think it probably has to be preserving undergraduate completion rates, first, which I understand is not about quality, per se. That's about making sure the students who are paying tuition here get to complete their degrees. So let's do what we have to do to make sure they get the classes they need. Maybe we need to take a hard look at the number of credits we're requiring. I also know that I teach very small classes, and that's just how the university works right now. And I like that, generally, but the campus could set priorities and give us strong messages to do more.
CT: There are some very smart, well-reasoned arguments on both sides of this public authority debate. Is there a chance that granting public authority status for UW-Madison really is a great idea?
SGR: What I'd like to see, and haven't seen, is more figures. What does flexibility in construction get us that we do not currently have and what will it get us over what we will have going forward? What does procurement flexibilities get us? Each one of these flexibilities should come with a price tag. And there should be another column — what are the losses? Where are those figures so we can make an informed decision?
CT: While UW-Madison is hoping to break from the UW System, in your blog you proposed that all higher education in the state, including UW-Madison, the UW System and the Wisconsin Technical College System, be overseen by one body?
SGR: This is my big idea. I've had it for awhile and I've thought about it for a long time. I do think it's very strange that we have a technical college system completely separate from the UW System. I understand that there might be some advantages to it. But I see some distinct disadvantages. I served this past summer on a special legislative committee for financial aid reform and I've watched the Wisconsin Technical College System and the UW System compete for resources. They shouldn't be competing. I think that's a huge problem. I think somebody who has the best interests at heart for both of them would make a different set of decisions than is being made.