The other morning I opened my email, as I do every morning, to find this lovely message:
“I saw online that you are leaving UW because of working conditions. I had a look at your ‘areas of expertise’ and I have to say I am delighted you are leaving. People with your ‘areas of expertise’ are like roaches, destroying what used to be great in American universities. I hope other states copy Governor Walker’s reforms — they may actually save higher education. -Rachelle.”
Yes. You read that correctly. A complete stranger tracked down my email address and sent me this message. I did not reply to her. I guess “Communication Studies” is now what is destroying great American universities. And, to those of you who don’t believe that those in education aren’t harassed on a daily basis, demonized, and have to put up with this *simply because we are teachers* you are living in a fantasy world. The actual blog is here, and nowhere did I mention personally leaving the UW System because of working conditions–I was writing about all the great faculty, one of my dear friends in particular, who are leaving because of the hostile political climate towards educators in Wisconsin. Thank you, Rachelle, for proving my point.
Now, I will wholly admit that I put myself out there. I blog about public education and recently posted about all of the great professors I know who are leaving the UW System because they’ve just reached their breaking point. I blog about what is happening in Wisconsin and what I see as the end of the UW System as we know it. I criticize that which I consider unfair and unjust and that puts a spotlight on me and my words, and I’m willing to accept that. I already do. I’ve received some horrifying comments on my blog and elsewhere, and I will take it. I find them to be ugly, cruel, and without fact or merit, but I’ll take it. Because it’s my decision to speak openly and those who disagree with me have a right to their opinions and comments. But this takes it to a whole new level.
I’ve written about the hostile climate surrounding those who work in the field of education before, and I honestly didn’t think it could get worst than being publicly harassed at a Kwik Trip in broad daylight, but this was so beyond anything I’ve dealt with. Think about the time and energy this person had to go through to find me, look up my areas of expertise, deem they were useless, and send me a personal message to my work email address to let me know just what she thinks of me, my area of study, and my career.
When I talk about why so many want to leave Wisconsin, it’s because of people like Rachelle. Rachelle is a real person. She is not a paid troll and this email did not come from some fringe right wing group that sent a mass email to anyone who speaks out against the cuts to public education in Wisconsin, or works in the field of education.
No. Rachelle is retired. Rachelle evidently has a lot of time on her hands. And she’s quite the writer herself. From an op-ed of hers entitled “Stop Pointless Studies,” she points out “One obvious and necessary way for California to save money is to end all of the extremist degree programs in the universities. Every university is infected with these programs, and millions could be saved. Although they seemed like a good idea when they were initiated, programs like black studies, gay studies, women’s studies, Chicano studies and the like have proven to be devoid of academic merit and are often a source of rancor and discord. Worse, these departments shelter self-proclaimed Marxists and revolutionary thugs at taxpayers’ expense. Why, for example, should the people of California pay for a cushy job at the University of California at Santa Cruz for an America-hating thug like Angela Davis, who was once indirectly connected to the murder of a judge? If we have to choose between keeping a prison guard or keeping a thug like Angela Davis on the taxpayers’ payroll, let’s keep the guard. End these programs.”
I’ll just leave that right there. In what other occupation do people get messages like this? In what universe does one feel entitled to track down someone with whom they disagree and send an email to their work address? And to what end? To make me feel bad? To feel productive that she “stuck it to me?” I will never understand the mindset of truly unhinged people who choose to engage in this type of behavior, and I’m not too worried about Rachelle. But experiences like these are ones which prove my point as to why so many are leaving Wisconsin and the field of education in general. Yes, it’s bad in Wisconsin, but the anti-intellectualism and anti-education rhetoric spawns across the United States. Before, if a student didn’t do well in class, it was the student’s responsibility to figure out how to get back on track. Now we blame teachers. We call them incompetent, overpaid, useless; we denigrate their areas of study. We cut funding for public education year after year after year so universities and public schools are asked to do more with less. A lot.
And this leads to dangerous repercussions. I’ve worked in the UW System for six years now and have dealt with furloughs, yearly budget cuts and seen some of the best people on my campus let go. But this year, especially now that these cuts are being implemented, we’re seeing a drain like we’ve never seen before. WISCAPE is currently keeping track of how many positions have been cut at each UW institution and is updating this as they receive more information. To those who argue that I’m overdramatizing the extent to which people are leaving, I would urge you to look at this site. And these are just the vacancies we know of–there is no mention (nor would there be)–of those who are currently on the market but haven’t explicitly stated so publicly for fear of retribution at their current place of employment. And it’s not just happening where I work. Across the system we’re seeing more uncertainty leading to more great educators leaving the system.
The other day Nico Savidge reported that despite national reputations of smaller departments, these “departments could soon be merged with similar-size programs or much larger departments — the victims, some say, of state budget cuts that are forcing the university to reduce administrative costs.” The merging and/or elimination of some departments has already resulted in layoffs or faculty deciding to leave before they get the axe.
Which brings me back to why so many educators are leaving Wisconsin. Uncertainty. If your department might be merged with another, why would you stay around to find out whether you will have a job in a few years? Within the UW Colleges, the discussions regarding a merger with the Wisconsin Technical College System is well underway seemingly without input from either the UW Colleges or the Wisconsin Technical College System. As Pat Schneider reports, “UW-Madison faculty urged Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to open up talks on the possibility of merging the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System. Their request came in the form of a letter from PROFS, a faculty advocacy organization, delivered Wednesday. Assembly Republicans were to meet privately Wednesday to devise ways that the two systems could ‘team up to cut costs, find efficiencies and eliminate redundancies.’ Legislators should instead ‘create a transparent and inclusive process for any review of public higher education in the state,’ faculty said in letter signed by the 18-member steering committee of PROFS.” Others have referred to the merger as a “total disaster without study or debate.” UW-Madison professor Michael Apple claimed “We now have a long and involved history where legislators say in public they are just studying it and then the Legislature passes it and it goes to the governor’s desk with very little discussion in the public and almost no discussion in the media until a crisis hits,’ he said. And it’s important to see the merger proposal in the context of Wisconsin’s recent history of ‘massive defunding of the university and organized attacks on higher education’ under Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-majority Legislature, Apple said. Merging academic and technical educational institutions elsewhere — Apple mentioned Australia in particular — has tended to lead to larger bureaucracies, cuts in funding, and a de-emphasis on the non-vocational aspects of education, he said. And efforts to reduce education to job training risks draining it of its role in fostering the critical thinking skills people need to be informed and active citizens, he said. ‘If education doesn’t prepare people to understand what is happening in their lives, it’s training — not education.'”
If you worked in either institution, and knew there would be duplication in terms of which classes are offered and had no idea if you would be able to stay in that institution, why would you not be on the job market right now?
This not only has affected higher education, but K-12 as well. The Journal Sentinal reports that school districts are scrambling to find teachers for positions claiming, “Charles Poches, superintendent of the Portage Community School District, said five years ago, an open elementary teaching position in the district would have attracted at least 150 to 180 applications. This year there were 50. . . . ‘For me, the issue is not so much about teacher shortages, but rather one of teacher retention,’ Shoho said. ‘If we can solve the teacher retention issue, we would not have a teacher shortage problem in any area.” In Janesville, dozens of teacher openings remain as well. “Back-to-school time is quickly approaching and it’s not just students and parents scrambling to get ready. In Janesville, the school district is working hard to hire. Right now, the district has more than two dozen open teaching positions. Steve Sperry, Director of Administrative and Human Services for the district, says, ‘At this stage of the game, we have about 28 positions across the district, a multitude of positions that are still available.'”
To make things worse, fewer and fewer students are choosing to major in education for a variety of reasons, one being the ways in which teachers are routinely demonized. As Fortune magazine points out, Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder claims, “‘There’s a lot of teacher bashing,’ he continued. ‘Do people want to enter careers where they feel they would be unfairly blamed?'”
The answer is, no. No they don’t. Those in education are tired of being blamed for all societal ills. We are tired of being harassed and most of us just want to go to work, do our jobs well, serve our students, and repeat the very next day. But that’s not what is happening, and it’s only getting worse. Legislators with no background in education are making decisions about what’s “best” for education in Wisconsin by “fixing” problems that don’t need to be fixed, causing unnecessary stress to those who just want to work and live in the UW System and within Wisconsin public schools. They are pandering to their supporters by placing the problems Wisconsin faces squarely on the shoulders of educators and other public sector employees. Because it works. And it gets them elected. And further divides our state so that the Rachelles out there feel it is their duty to make sure those in education know how useless and unnecessary they are.
The anti-education rhetoric won’t stop, and with every year, if history is any indicator, our budgets will be cut again and we will be continued to be asked to “do more with less.” And people continue to ask why anyone would want to leave. This, this is why. Who in their right minds would want to work in a university or any environment where random strangers send you emails delighting in your misery and discrediting your area of study? And until we get legislators in office whose goal is to restore funding and resources to public education, until we get legislators in office who will reverse the frame of teacher shame and blame, we will continue to lose our best, and even if the UW System still stands, who will be left?