I started my career at UW-Madison 15 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. I care deeply about the welfare of this university. Though I’ve been offered jobs elsewhere, a sense of loyalty has kept me here.
That loyalty springs from a deep appreciation for the Wisconsin Idea — the conviction, as Adlai Stevenson once put it, that the university should strive to apply intelligence and reason to the problems of society, lighting the way of government with the best torches of knowledge and understanding it can provide.
My loyalty to this university also springs from my involvement in shared governance. Faculty are like everyone else. They do their best work when they come to identify with their organization or job and feel they are contributing to something they believe in. The most effective way to foster those attitudes is to give people a voice in their workplace and a share in the institution’s power.
The features of this university that have done so much to motivate me are now under attack. Worst of all, UW System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents — the people who should be the university’s biggest advocates — have been complicit in these attacks.
Gov. Scott Walker last year tried to change the university’s historic mission by eliminating its commitment to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” substituting instead the far narrower goal of “meet[ing] the state’s workforce needs.” A public outcry forced the governor to back down, but the same end is now being pursued by different means.
Massive budget cuts deprive the University of Wisconsin of the resources it needs to carry out its historic mission. President Cross vowed to reduce these cuts substantially but secured only a token reduction. Worse still, he prevented chancellors from informing the Regents (or “whining” in his words) about the damage these cuts have done on their campuses.
The weakening of tenure is also a means to change the university’s mission. Tenure allows faculty to challenge conventional wisdom, test controversial ideas and question university leaders on academic and educational issues without fear of reprisal. After legislation removed tenure from state law last year, the Board of Regents developed new tenure policies that are below the high standards set by the American Association of University Professors.
Where once Wisconsin was a leader, we are now reduced to the lowest common denominator among our “peer institutions.” This erosion of tenure empowers administrators to replace the Wisconsin Idea with the narrower mission of short-term workforce training.
Finally, legislation passed last year curtailed the faculty’s voice in academic and educational activities, concentrating power in the hands of administrators. This creates less accountability, not more. The Board of Regents has shown a similar disregard for the faculty’s voice.
For instance, under new policies the Regents adopted, modification or discontinuation of academic programs is no longer based exclusively on educational considerations as determined primarily by the faculty. Whether students get the instruction they need now depends on “comparative cost-effectiveness” and “budgetary prioritization” as determined by bureaucratic bean counters. Applying the logic of HMOs to education jeopardizes its quality.
As stewards of the university’s academic and educational activities, the faculty have a responsibility to speak out, to educate the public about the damage being done, and to try to preserve and protect the quality of the education we strive to provide for our students and the people of this state. We are standing up for them because they deserve better.