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Sara Goldrick-Rab

Sara Goldrick-Rab, director of UW-Madison's Wisconsin HOPE Lab 

The executive committee for the UW-Madison Faculty Senate Monday tried to put to rest rumors that it was going to seek to have a professor fired over controversial tweets about Gov. Scott Walker and the worth of a UW degree after legislative Republican laws weakened faculty influence.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a well-known sociology and education professor, posted tweets this month telling incoming UW-Madison students that Republican attacks on the university are reducing the value of a degree. She also posted a tweet comparing Walker to Adolph Hitler.

Last week, the University Committee issued a statement criticizing Goldrick-Rab, fueling speculation that the committee would be seeking formal action against her at its Monday meeting.

“I heard rumors this morning that people were discussing over the weekend that that’s what we were prepared this morning to do,” said committee member Amy Wendt.

But committee members sought instead to put the matter to rest.

“It ends there,” said acting committee chair Dorothy Farrar-Edwards, referring to the statement. “We have no other plans.”

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank confirmed that university officials weren’t pursuing any actions against the professor.

“I have been receiving emails from the students of Professor Goldrick-Rab pleading with me not to fire her,” Blank said at the meeting. “I find this very odd and I’m going to say to you the same thing I said back to them, I find this completely puzzling. And the only person who seems to be discussing firing in any way, shape or form is Professor Goldrick-Rab.”

The controversy started earlier this month when Goldrick-Rab took aim at a Republican budget measure to end shared governance at the university — a proposal that has since been signed into law. The measure has caught the attention of faculty across the nation who worry that their institutions might follow suit by weakening faculty input in university policies and procedures.

“We don’t want students 2 waste their $. It’s info that’s all,” she tweeted in response to a post featuring a group of high school graduates in caps and gowns who were making the Badger “W” sign with their hands. She also suggested that faculty members would soon be leaving the university.

On Thursday, members of the University Committee issued a statement that they were “deeply dismayed” with Goldrick-Rab for discouraging students from attending UW.

“While claiming to stand for academic freedom, she has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations,” the statement said.

Farrar-Edwards said on Monday: “We were alarmed at some of the tweets she was sending out. They were incorrect. They misrepresented the situation.”

She emphasized that the statement didn’t pertain to Goldrick-Rab’s reference to Walker.

“She can say whatever she wants about the governor, as far as I’m concerned,” Farrar-Edwards said.

On July 1, Goldrick-Rab, who's Jewish, tweeted: “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it's terrifying.”

The tweets prompted a press release from the UW College Republicans calling for university officials to address the remarks, denouncing them as “disgusting and repulsive”

Goldrick-Rab is a prolific tweeter, with over 10,000 followers. Last week she apologized for the wording of her tweets.

“I'm really sorry I left it open to interpretation, for people to take offense,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Monday’s meeting was attended by a handful of faculty and former faculty who have been following the controversy, some of whom took issue with the statement coming from the University Committee without first going through the Senate.

Committee members said they issued the statement as individual faculty members.

“I do respect your abilities to speak as individual faculty members and would not want to do anything to abridge that,” said David Vanness, a professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences. “But when you post it and promulgate it under the header of the university website with the title ‘University Committee Statement,’ it is very unclear that you spoke as individual faculty.”

Blank acknowledged that removing the statutory authority for shared governance has become a hot-button issue among faculty, but she stressed that the university intends to retain shared governance as a campus policy, and she urged the committee to affirm its support as well.

“I have said, I’ve said in my blog and I’ve said as many times as I possibly can, I don’t see anything in these changes that should really affect what we do in our policies and procedures,” she said. “And I want to really reaffirm my commitment to the ways in which we operate here on campus.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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