Yesterday was a hard day for the University of Wisconsin (see AAUP statement). But there are a few moments that gave me hope for the future. Regent José Vásquez’ impassioned plea that we stop “cannibalizing ourselves over the fiscal crisis.” Regents Evers and Bradley providing eminently reasonable amendments that could have gone a long way toward preserving our rights and reputation. Students, mostly of color, who are facing disrespect and disregard, standing up courageously and respectfully to demand real improvement in campus diversity and acknowledgment of their struggle — whose first protest cry was “We don’t want #faketenure at the University of Wisconsin!”
But it was hard to hear Regent after Regent tell us that the best days of the University of Wisconsin System are “last century.” Our new reality is one of politically imposed austerity — one that is now abundantly clear (and now on the record) as requiring programs to close and faculty to be fired. If I could sum up the Regents’ message in their own lexicon, it would be: “We need to empower our chancellors with the flexibility they need to demonstrate accountability and deal with the financial reality we face.” To translate from corporate-speak, use the following handy set of bullet points:
- Whenever you hear “flexibility” think “fire at-will”;
- Whenever you hear “accountability” think “meet quotas”;
- Whenever you hear “empower chancellors” think “disenfranchise faculty, staff and students”;
- Whenever you hear “financial reality” think “more budget cuts are coming.”
As my good friend Chad Goldberg wrote, in discussing whether administrators would use their new flexibility to close departments and terminate tenured faculty to save money, “As Chekhov said, when a gun appears in the first act, you can be sure it will be fired before the play ends.”
Once campuses have their own policies approved by the Board, the program closures and firings can commence. It will not happen all at once — it will play out slowly. It will not happen first at UW-Madison, but more likely in our particularly cash-strapped four-year comprehensives. To my colleagues at UW-Madison: we need to be ready to stand up for our colleagues across the system when the time comes. We may indeed be the “flagship” – but what good is a flagship when the whole fleet is sinking?
What can we do? For one thing, every UW System faculty and academic staff member should join the AAUP… now; the next step will be for members across the state to form an AAUP state conference. We will be the early-warning and defense network. When firings occur for reasons that do not meet AAUP standards of due process and shared governance, censure becomes a real possibility (see, e.g., Felician College, National Louis University (Illinois) and University of Southern Maine for recent censures resulting from terminations due to financial concerns short of exigency). Our administration needs to know that we are serious. A vibrant and engaged state membership increases our power for collective action.
Now the real battle begins. Will you join us?